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After-school programs fill critical need in community
More children served, more options offered to keep learning fun
Ashton House and Gunner Gooch eat crackers and drink milk Wednesday during the after-school program held by the YMCA at Sardis Enrichment School. The program runs on school days and occasionally offers some adjusted scheduling during school breaks. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Nearly 50 children sit restlessly at the Sardis Enrichment School lunch table, snacking on TruMoo chocolate milk and Elk Graham crackers.

They’ve got a big afternoon ahead of them, including personal homework help, organized brain games and, if the weather cooperates, a trip outside to play.

These children are some of nearly a thousand in Gainesville and Hall County who use a local after-school program. Each program at each school is a little different, operated typically through a grant with a local community organization.

In Hall County schools, the YMCA offers after-school programs at each elementary school. The program is designed to enhance students’ performance in the classroom, specifically in reading, language arts and math.

Gwen Hatcher, child care director for the YMCA, said there are more than 900 students from 20 of the 21 Hall elementary schools enrolled in the program. Parents can check out their students any time from the end of the day at 2:40 p.m. until 6 p.m.

“Each afternoon they come from their classroom to the area in their school where after-school is provided,” Hatcher said. “They do snacks each day that the school lunchroom orders for us. They get homework assistance each day, games and activities each day throughout the week.”

The program runs on school days and occasionally offers some adjusted scheduling during school breaks.

“When the kids are out of school or it’s a teacher work day or something like that, we only offer the program at the J.A. Walters location,” Hatcher said of the YMCA on Howard Road off Ga. 365. “But for larger breaks, like spring break, we are working to have drop-off and pick-up locations at one of our southern county schools. That way the parents can still drop their kids off, but they don’t have to drive up to the north end of the county.”

In the Gainesville district, most elementary schools have a program through the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County. At Fair Street School, after-school care is provided through a 21st Century grant with the Boys & Girls Clubs.

“We do have after-school programming for our kids, for about 90 kids or so,” Principal Will Campbell said. “There are tutorials, enrichment classes, dance, (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math), drama — all kinds of cool things going on after school.”

Students in the Boys & Girls Clubs after-school programs get the combined benefit of clubs programs and those designed to enhance their lessons in the classroom.

Hatcher said bringing in both academic enrichment and lessons the kids will enjoy is essential in an after-school program.

“In the spring we’re also going to roll out some new opportunities for our children in the program and even kids who are not,” Hatcher said. “They’ll have the opportunity to sign up for some activities like art. We’ll introduce it as a trial run at a few schools to see what the interest in it is.”

Hatcher said they will try to match the extracurricular activity to any charter, magnet or program of choice focus the schools may have.

While every child might benefit from an after-school program, entrance to these programs isn’t as easy as admittance to school itself.

Sardis Enrichment School Principal Neil Yarrington said he sees a demand in the county for after-school care. Fortunately, Gainesville and Hall don’t have to turn children away from their programs.

“One thing that’s also helped us is we’ve pretty much had the same staff for the last couple of years in the after-school program,” he said. “That makes our parents feel more comfortable with what we do.”

Across the state, standards for after-school programs have been fluid. The YMCA local after-school programs operate in accordance with Bright From the State licensing regulations. Others are self-regulated.

But last November, multiple state agencies decided to set quality standards for after-school programs.

“After-school programs provide Georgia’s youth with a safe and enriching place to go after school, before school and during the summer,” Bobby Cagle, director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, said in a news release. “These standards will serve as a framework for providers to evaluate and continue improving the quality of their programming.”

The standards involve linking to the school day, providing a supportive environment, encouraging health, creating evaluations and offering quality programming — all things local after-school programs already do, officials said.

YMCA Afterschool costs anywhere from $40 to $60 per week with a $25 registration fee, though scholarships are available.

The Boys & Girls Clubs offer free after-school care at club locations with the $40 annual membership fee, but after-school programs at the schools cost $20 per week, per child. Along with Fair Street, the clubs run programs at Gainesville Exploration Academy, Centennial Arts Academy, Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy and New Holland Core Knowledge Academy.

While this child care is not free, the benefits still may outweigh the costs to working families.

Hatcher said when a child has two working parents, often the best scenario allows for the child to stay at school until he or she can be picked up at the end of a parent’s work day.

Yarrington agreed.

“We have a lot parents that work and families where both parents work,” he said. “They’ve got to have somewhere for their kids to go, so it works out really well.”