Pilot after-school program targets at-risk children Center offers students a safe haven to study

October 07, 1997|By Jill Hudson | Jill Hudson,SUN STAFF

After an afternoon snack and a quick game of kickball, 45 energetic elementary and middle school children stream into a large, brightly lighted room in the Cedar Lane Park Center in Columbia.

Student sit at the long white tables that serve as desks and turn their attention to their homework.

Some students dig math and spelling books out of their backpacks. Soon dozens of heads are bowed over books, brows furrowed in concentration. Pencils and erasers scratch furiously

at photocopied sheets full of science problems.

The students -- who attend Longfellow Elementary and Swansfield, Harper's Choice or Wilde Lake middle schools in Columbia -- come every weekday to the center for tutoring, mentoring, computer labs, classes in social skills development and other recreational activities.

Maybe for the first time, many of the students say schoolwork is actually fun.

"I really like it here," said 10-year-old April Curley, as she finishes her fourth-grade spelling assignment. "Everyone's really nice and I don't understand something, they'll help me figure it out."

The Cedar Lane Park after-school program began to take shape in January after Howard County received a federal grant of almost $125,000 under the Safe and Drug Free School and Communities Act. It is the pilot project for what will be a number of structured afternoon programs for at-risk children in Maryland.

Five county entities -- the Police Department, Department of Recreation and Parks, Health Department, county school system and the Office of Substance Abuse -- are

participating in the after-school mentoring program, which officially began Sept. 22.

The program is run by the Howard County police, who have assigned three officers to the center, one full-time. The center relies on volunteers to help with the center's day-to-day administrative duties and everyone works together to help the ,, students with schoolwork and social skills. Health Department workers give weekly talks to the students.

Many children are idle between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. because schools are out and parents aren't home yet. The Cedar Lane Park program was designed to keep children -- those who might be more interested in hanging out than doing their homework -- out of trouble.

Dave Neal, a youth services police officer who works at the center full-time and runs the program, said most of the children in the Cedar Lane Park program are "latch-key kids who need something to do in the afternoon. But our program is aimed at getting kids before any trouble has begun.

"I think we were very lucky because every one of these kids are good kids," Neal said. "They want to be here and they understand why their parents want them here. It's up to us to try to create an environment where it is sort of cool to hang here."

A number of Howard public school teachers were asked to nominate children from their classes for the program. A few of those teachers moonlight as tutors at Cedar Lane Park nine or more hours each week.

Ken MacGregor, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Mayfield Woods Middle School, said the students in the program will undoubtedly "see a marked rise in their grades by the end of the fall term. The center has scheduled time for them to work diligently at their schoolwork, which may be new for them.

"And we find that their parents want them to be here, and that helps because the parents are more likely to reinforce what we're doing here when the kids go home at night," MacGregor added.

Each Cedar Lane student receives a "report card" at the end of every week, alerting parents to the areas in which their children need help and more focus. Official school report cards are expected to be brought in at the end of each semester to highlight areas in which each child needs help.

Harper's Choice Middle School student Nicholas Mitchell, 12, said being able to work on one of the center's three Power Macintosh computers -- all Internet accessible -- is one of the things he enjoys most about the program.

As he sits at a computer keyboard typing out an essay for his sixth-grade English class, another Harper's Choice student, Raemond Parrott, 11, leans over to help Mitchell with his typing.

"It's good to be here because we can have as much time as we want to do homework," said Raemond, who dreams of being a politician "like Franklin Roosevelt."

"We can play games, go on field trips, do crafts and we always have enough time to get our homework done," he said.

He added: "I think I'll stay."

Pub Date: 10/07/97

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