PUTNEY—Of the many ways school administrators gauge the success of a new program, some are intangible: Are the kids happier? Are they more interested in learning? Some indicators, though, are unmistakably clear.
Robert Brooks, a para-educator at the Putney Central School, reflected on the institution’s first after-school program, and noted the positive changes he believes it inspired.
“Discipline referrals this 2015-16 school year are down by at least 50 percent, and major referrals are down by 80 percent,” Brooks said. Although Principal Herve Pelletier said the decline may be explained any number of ways, Brooks is convinced the after-school program is the likely cause.
The after-school program began in December and saw 82 of the school’s approximately 170 students participate.
“The major effect of this program is, kids care about their education,” Brooks said.
Most of Brooks’ time at the school is spent as Director of the Planning Room and helping coordinate the after-school program but, he says, “you’ll need your whole notebook to write down all the things I do here.”
When students experience challenges in the classroom and their behavior causes conflicts or discomfort for others, “they go see Mr. Brooks” in the Planning Room.
What do they plan there?
“We make a plan to get them back to class,” or otherwise resolve the disagreement by working with all involved parties in a positive, supportive approach, he said.
Thus, if anyone is going to notice when students come to the Planning Room more often to just say hello, or pet Brooks’ dog, and less often because they were sent there by a teacher, it would be Brooks.
But, how could an after-school program possibly reduce discipline infractions?
Brooks has a theory, and it mostly focuses on connection and community.
For all of the students, including the ones with challenging or transient home lives, having multiple people pay positive attention and show they care has made a difference, Brooks says.
“These [discipline referral] numbers have gone down, but the connections have gone up,” Brooks said, noting that, for example, when a teacher spends time with students outside the regular classroom, “it forges a connection” that will come in handy when the student is having a hard time with a lesson.
What made the after-school program possible was arranging for the school bus to do a late run, at 4 p.m., so children without transportation could attend, too.
Federal money paid for the late-bus — enough children qualified because of their families’ lower incomes — but Brooks realized that “as long as I got those kids on the bus, I could put other kids on the bus, too."
With the students there late, the school decided to offer a sit-down, family-style meal. Assistant Food Service Director Kerri Harlow says all of the meals are made from scratch and meet all federal nutritional guidelines.
The family meal leads to further connection, Brooks said, noting adults and older students sit with younger children and model good meal-time behavior. Everybody gets fed, whether they qualify for reduced or free lunch or not, “so no kid feels different from another,” Brooks said. Harlow said she had a student apprentice this school year, as well.
This mass showing of support brings positive interactions into the kids’ lives beyond the classroom. It also promotes the notion that learning can be enjoyable, Brooks said, and that lesson sometimes comes in sneaky ways.
“[Paraprofessional] Jill Johnson had the kids building boats this year,” Brooks said, and although they thought they were just having fun building little boats and bringing them out to the creek behind the school, “they were really learning about volume and mass.”
“Maryann Toffolon made pizza with the kids, but they were really learning fractions, such as, ‘What is a quarter-cup?’, and they learned about biology,” through working with yeast, Brooks said.
Other mathematics lessons from Toffolon’s pizza workshop involved dividing a pizza equally among five friends, Brooks said, noting, “How do you cut the pie?”
Mountain biking, led by Physical Education teacher Matt Bristol, is another program of which Brooks is proud.
Thirty-six children signed up, and owning a bicycle wasn’t mandatory. Through community support via Putney’s fundraising Lantern Dinners, private donations, and assistance from the West Hill Shop, the school established its own fleet of about 30 kids’ bicycles in a range of sizes to suit students from the tiniest kindergartner to the heftiest eighth-grader.
Librarian Lauren Perlstein teaches participants writing and math by creating and laying out the school’s yearbook.
“We make projects to meet the kids’ educational goals,” Brooks said.
Brooks seemed especially excited about Peer-to-Peer Tutoring, sponsored by Putney Family Services.
Earlier this year, a group of 22 older students completed a three-hour training program with a Putney Family Services staff member “to learn how to help their tutees through nonjudgmental problem-solving and reinforcement to encourage every student to give their best effort,” the program’s brochure says.
The participating 21 “tutees” were referred to the program by teachers and caregivers.
Although the tutoring program’s stated goals are for participants to “think of this opportunity as a chance to create new friendships while working on their academic and helping skills,” another incentive is material.
Putney Family Services pays the tutors an hourly stipend for their work, thus sending another positive message — the community will reward you for your work — and providing an opportunity for students to learn money and time management.
Other programs include Gardening with Sustainability Coordinator Steve Hed, Arts & Crafts with Harlow, the Science Club, Girls On The Run, the Chess Club, and the Forest Program.
Although the after-school program ends with the school year, the good connections and opportunities for enjoyable learning continue into the summer.
The school will offer a five-session summer program from June 27 to July 29 with activities such as soccer camp, robotics, hunter safety, a cappella singing, timber framing, and fishing.
The fishing program, Brooks said, is led by Jack Millerick, listed in the program literature as “Pa Pa Jack.” Millerick, a pre-school aide at Putney Central, is a fishing enthusiast, a former athletic director at Putney Central, and a retiree, Brooks said, “but he wanted something to do this summer.”
The after-school and summer programs are a widespread effort, Brooks said, from the many sources of funding — federal, state, foundation, and local business owners and individual supporters — to the many PTO members, school staff, and community members donating their time and expertise to make the program work.
Brooks mentioned Basketville, Orvis, and J.D. McCliment’s Pub as generous supporters.
“This is how Putney supports the needs of its kids,” he said, adding, “I don’t think I’ve ever called anybody [to ask for help] and had them say no.”