Exeter's after-school program surpasses expectations

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

$400K program grant benefits children, helps parents

In September of 2014, The Exeter School District received a $400,000 grant through the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to implement an after-school program for children in all grades.

The grant application was written by Mandy Mattingly, after-school program director for the district, and the grant provided the district with a $100,000 disbursement per year over a four-year period.

Before the grant, the district did not have any type of after-school programs, only tutoring for students who needed it.

"They were just picked up or rode the bus home," said Mattingly, who initially presented the idea from her experience with the grant, named 21st Century Grant, in another school district.

"We had the same grant in my old school, Bronaugh, near Nevada," she said.

The program provides after-school care for children from kindergarten through high school, and consists of a highly-organized, comprehensive schedule of educational instruction and activities, which allows parents pick up their child after work, verses finding a place for them to go. It also allows children to complete any homework they may have.

"It extends, but does not replicate what they're doing in the classroom every day," Mattingly said. "They are doing fun things they don't get to do in the classroom because of a lack of time."

The program is organized into themes.

"Every day has a different theme," she said. "We do homework, snack, physical fitness, and then we have an hour-long activity."

Themes range from fitness, to literacy, science and technology.

"Fourth-grade on up does activities like robots, gears and solar power," Mattingly said. "It changes by quarter."

The children also do community service projects, such as a fundraiser for student Blazi Lowe, multicultural activities, arts and crafts and character education, wherein they learn about respect and responsibility.

Since the program was implemented last fall, enrollment has been not only met, but surpassed staff expectations.

"The program has been fantastic," Mattingly said. "We only estimated to serve 80 kids, and this year, we have an enrollment of 185. We also have adult education classes on Monday night and five family activity nights. This week is family movie night."

"Most of our participation is elementary," said Ernest Raney, superintendent. "When they go on different field trips, it gives them experiences they wouldn't otherwise have."

Raney said some sample field trips have included singing for a nursing home in Cassville, and going to the Discovery Center in Springfield.

"It's been a good thing," he said. "I'm proud of the work the teachers have done. In some cases, where families wouldn't have child care until later, it really helps with that.

"We're glad to keep the students and give them more learning opportunities. It's active learning; it's hands-on."

Both Raney and Mattingly said the grant was not easy to obtain.

"It's a very competitive grant," Raney said. "So, it was a great surprise when we got it. We've got great people who work hard and do whatever it takes to make things happen. Mandy had a lot of connections with other schools doing the same program."

Over the course of time, funds from the grant decrease.

"The last three years, it goes down," Mattingly said. "And in the fourth and fifth year, a little more. It's because they want you to learn to sustain a program on your own."

The program has stringent reporting requirements, which Mattingly oversees.

"There is a lot of reporting you have to do, with everything from sign-in sheets to grades, surveys and attendance every single night," she said.

To obtain the grant, the district had to show a need for it.

"We had to do parent surveys, and surveys within our staff, and student surveys asking if they thought there was a need for it," Mattingly said. "We are a rural school with not many options for kids after school, whereas places like St. Louis and Springfield has a Boys and Girls Club and a YMCA.

"Cassville has a YMCA, but if you're not a member, it doesn't help the students who have a low income. And with our socioeconomic status, that helped us with getting the grant also. It has been way better than what we expected."

After the grant cycle completes, the district can reapply, but either way, Raney plans to continue the program, due to the educational and cultural benefits it offers to students, and the practical benefits to busy parents.

"With the experience [Mandy] has, I think we'll be able to continue it it for years to come," Raney said. "She's really great at managing things, and she's got a great team. I believe in some capacity we'll continue regardless."

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