They were clearly excited. Some were nervous. Aside from presenting small showcases for their parents, most had never performed in front of a large audience.
But when the group of nearly 100 children performed at halftime during last week's Harlem Ambassadors vs. Hernando Hoopsters basketball game at Nature Coast Technical High School, all eyes were on them.
"It was so cute," said Leanne Germann, one of the instructors. "They were just so excited."
The performers were not students from a local dance studio. Instead, they were students from Hernando County public schools — participants in the district's new STEAM AfterSchool Program.
STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) AfterSchool is a free program run through the Hernando County Education Foundation. It provides academic and personal enrichment services to between 400 and 500 students in 11 of the county's public schools, offering tutoring, mentoring, health information and nutrition, fitness education, and career and technical education.
The various STEAM programs, which started last fall, include academic programs in science, technology and math, as well as enrichment programs such as dance, theater and martial arts. Students participate in projects in robotics, topography, drawing and three-dimensional art.
STEAM AfterSchool was made possible by a five-year grant through the Florida Department of Education's 21st Century Community Learning Center, which awarded three grants of $1.5 million each.
"This is a huge grant for the community," said education foundation executive director Tammy Brinker. "Not only is this wonderful for the students, but it is also creating jobs."
All STEAM instructors and staffers are paid. While school staffers and teachers account for a large number of the STEAM staff, others come from community partners, such as the Stir Up the Gift talent organization, which leads a section of the program's arts section.
Brinker said the program is aimed at students who show a lack of commitment to their education, such as poor grades or poor attendance, and who score low on standardized tests. Priority is given to those who come from disadvantaged families.
The hope is that the after-school experiences will help motivate them in the classroom.
Participating schools include Deltona, Eastside, Moton, Pine Grove, Spring Hill and Westside elementary schools; West Hernando Middle School; Explorer and J.D. Floyd K-8 schools, and Springstead and Weeki Wachee high schools. The schools, each recognized as needing expanded education support, were selected using a number of factors, including high percentages of students who are economically disadvantaged, score below grade level on state assessments, and score low in math and reading.
To remain in the STEAM AfterSchool Program, students must keep up not only their grades, but also their attendance.
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"They must attend school," Brinker said, "If they miss more than one or two days a month, they will be removed from the program." Brinker said the different projects, especially those in the area of math, are noticeably improving students' skills.
The STEAM program is offered at no cost to students, who also receive free snacks and a hot dinner each day. The program will continue through the summer months, when school is out.
The students who performed at the Harlem Ambassadors event are part of the performing arts portion of the program, headed up by Melinda Crandle, CEO and talent director at Stir Up the Gift. The focus is on dance and theater.
"The students present showcases about every eight weeks," Crandle said. "The showcases are so parents, teachers and (the education foundation) can see what they are doing and how they are coming along. … It is really going great."
With continued budget cuts in the schools, students at some schools have little, if any, exposure to the arts. For example, Westside Elementary no longer offers music, and students are only offered an art lab on the "specials" rotation.
"This is such a wonderful opportunity," Crandle said. "The arts have been taken out of schools, and this is a way we can bring it back."
School Board member Beth Narverud agrees, though she says the program has had some growing pains and remains a work in progress. Narverud said elective programs that make students well-rounded are the ones that are always under scrutiny when budget cuts are necessary, and the STEAM program is helping to fill that void.
"Tammy worked really hard to get this grant," Narverud said. "She's done a tremendous job."
Germann is a theater instructor at Westside Elementary, spending an hour a day introducing students to various aspects of the theater. This week, her students performed a showcase based on a scene from the musical Annie, which included two songs and a dance routine.
"I am just excited that we are able to do this for the kids," Germann said. "It gives them an outlet they never had a chance to have before."
Before starting the STEAM program, many of the participating students had average grades of C's an D's. Since beginning to participate in STEAM, many have brought their grades up to A's and B's.
"It is such a wonderful testimony to the program," Crandle said."
"So many of the kids are excited to be 'Steamers,' as they call themselves," Brinker said. "They really enjoy being in the program."