LAND O' LAKES -- Laughter burst from Mikayla Hamm, a Rushe Middle School seventh-grader. She steered a tiny robot across a table to Ruth Irizarry, a Rushe sixth-grader. Audrey Shpigel, another Rushe sixth-grader, watched eagerly.
“I think this is spectacular,” said Shpigel, referring to the activity and the after-school program Beyond the Bell that offers it.
The girls were part of about two dozen participating in a robotics class taught by Charles Sulesky, a science-technology-engineering-math instructor from Nexplore, a private company that offers enrichment activities. Beyond the Bell is a pilot program offered this year at Rushe and River Ridge middle schools in New Port Richey
Watching the students were: Mary Grey, director of after-school enrichment activities for Pasco County schools; Dorcia Bartenope, program manager; Al Brown, program site manager; and senior group leaders Sheila Hernandez and Jada Walker.
Rushe principal David Salerno said that the program, a few months old, already is a success.
“From a parent’s perspective, since we are an early-release school – our students are dismissed at 1:50 p.m. – it provides reassurance that their child is safe and not home alone," he said. "Parents also like that their child has the opportunity for additional assistance with their academics through a tutoring component that is part of the program. The students love the program because there is something for everyone."
Scholars Club – the tutoring component - provides academic support with computers to assist with class assignments.
EJ Doychak, student support and assistance program teacher at Rushe, jumped at the opportunity to work extra hours helping students. He’s seen grades improve and student enthusiasm grow.
Grey and Bartenope put together ideas at the district level. Principals had asked for a program, and school surveys showed strong parent interest. The program had to be more than child care, had to be self-supporting and had to have kid appeal.
Al Brown, site manager for nearby Oakstead Elementary School’s PLACE – the before- and after-school child care program – was a good fit for Beyond the Bell. He works mornings at Oakstead and afternoons at Rushe.
“This is totally different from my morning schedule, and I love it,” said Brown, who explained the student schedule.
When school dismisses, students report to Brown for recreation time. Then it’s Scholars Club in the computer lab, and then to a class like the recent robotics. Things wrap up with a classroom recreation time. Student interests help determine what classes are planned.
“At first I didn’t know what to expect, and now I love this program,” said Irizarry.
With the success of the two pilot programs, Grey is eager to expand to other middle schools. Parent surveys later in the spring will determine need and interest.
For more information about Beyond the Bell, visit www.btbprogram.com or call (813)794-2298.
Times Correspondent Gail Diederich is a retired teacher. She has 32 years of experience, including 28 years in Pasco County schools, where she taught gifted students and was a reading specialist. She also taught education, general studies and business leadership at Pasco Hernando State College and at Saint Leo University..