It’s 3 p.m.—do you know where your teen is? West Jordan Middle offers 23 after-school activities to keep kids out of trouble
Jan 15, 2020 01:10PM
● By Jet Burnham
Claire Tyler works on a coding project with the Girls Who Code program. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)
By Jet Burnham | [email protected]
Once the final school bell rings, Gage Walters is transformed into a singing star. Using the professional equipment and high quality microphones in West Jordan Middle School’s recording studio, the seventh grader records his music.
“I love music and singing,” he said. “I also love recording studio technology.”
WJMS band and orchestra teacher Nickolas Pulsipher invites students like Gage to use his recording studio and equipment every Monday after school.
“Music technology and production is something that I feel is super engaging and rewarding, but it isn't directly addressed in the state standards for band or orchestra,” Pulsipher said. In after-school sessions, students are exposed to a variety of music, and those who aren’t enrolled in music classes during the day have an opportunity to engage with music.
What kids are doing after school.
The recording studio is one of nearly 30 enrichment activities offered in the after-school program at WJMS. A variety of athletic, academic, creative and social activities are offered Monday through Friday.
“This is the age where it's pivotal to have a sense of belonging,” said Principal Dixie Garrison. “If they're not given a structured activity, they can fall into things that are undesirable.”
According to her research, gang activity, crime and teen pregnancy occur more often during those critical after school hours between when school lets out and when parents come home from work.
“We want to keep kids busy during those troublesome hours, keep them off the street, keep them from doing things that they shouldn't be doing,” said WJMS after-school program coordinator Ryan Frandsen. The four to five options offered every afternoon also provide teens with learning opportunities, positive role models, healthy activity and a safe place to be after school for students wanting to avoid encountering gangs or bullies on the way home.
Enrichment activities range from sports to STEM activities to social groups such as the Empathy Project, social dance and Dungeons & Dragons: Magic the Gathering game-playing. Students can also learn new skills such as stop motion filming, art and sign language.
Gage admits if he didn’t participate in after-school enrichment groups, he wouldn’t do much with his afternoons.
“I would either go home and chillax or just go to my girlfriend's house,” he said.
Eighth grader Ethan Black admits he would be watching a lot of YouTube. Instead, he plays basketball after school twice a week.
“I come with my friends to have fun,” Ethan said.
Ethan is impressed that his teachers are willing to give up their afternoons to lead the activities.
“The teachers care about us and want us to have fun,” he said. “They could be at home spending time with their families, but they're here spending extra hours with us even though they've already spent, like, seven hours with us.”
The investment of time pays dividends in behavior.
Dedicated staff members are the main reason the after-school program is so successful, said Principal Dixie Garrison. For many years, they volunteered to run after-school groups without any compensation for their time.
“I'm just blown away by my staff and their dedication,” she said. “This is above and beyond what a normal teacher would do. They're staying for at least an hour outside of their contract time. It is truly remarkable.”
Frandsen said even though he is sacrificing time away from his wife and new baby, he feels the investment in the student–teacher relationship during those additional hours pays off in the classroom.
“There are kids I'll be butting heads with all day in class,” Frandsen said. “Then we'll go outside and play soccer together. We're having a good time and joking around, and it kind of refreshes the relationship.”
Jorge Ibanez, who coaches the after-school soccer league, said stronger relationships are developed through the informal interactions.
“It's different than sitting in the classroom,” he said. “We can just play. I think it's really important to have that relationship outside the class.”
Ibanez said when students have a good relationship with their teachers, it leads to good attendance. Students are motivated to come to school and to stay until the end of the day to participate in the after-school activities.
He doesn’t think he’s giving up a lot to stay for an extra hour after school.
“I'm gaining,” he said. “Because that way I have more teaching time with the students in class—I don't have to worry too much about behavior. I think it's a good trade-off.”
Ninth grader Nefthaly Loya enjoys getting to know teachers as real people as he participates in after-school basketball, volleyball, Latino crew and soccer.
“It makes me feel pretty good that I could trust these teachers,” he said.
Students and staff shape the program based on their interests.
The staff members at WJMS have seen the benefits the after-school program provides students, but they also enjoy the opportunity to explore their own interests and find ways to support students in theirs.
“Spending more time with them, sharing my passion for yoga with them, learning from their resilient examples—none of that feels like a sacrifice but an honor,” said Paige Wightman, who teaches a weekly yoga class.
She said many students have found yoga can help them deal with stresses in their lives. Students learn empowering poses, soothing breathing techniques and meditation.
“I believe we should fill the toolbox for our teens with academic, social and emotional skills before they ever have to use them,” Wightman said. “Yoga is a really beautiful way to do that.”
After school counselor Mark Jones took a class in computer science, he volunteered to share what he’d learned with students after school. Through a grant from the Department of Workforce Services, he purchased computers and supplies, and he even took students on field trips.
Because they’re learning coding and programming skills, students have opportunities to participate in STEM competitions. In the past few years, WJMS students have won Jordan School District’s CTE Choice Award, Utah Jazz STEM student of the month, awards from the Utah STEM Action Center and district competitions. These awards, skills and experiences boost students’ qualifications on college and scholarship applications and give them a head start on in-demand job skills.
Seventh grader Claire Tyler enjoys coding with friends at the Girls Who Code group that meets once a week. She believes the skills she is learning will help make her more employable.
“There's not enough girls in coding careers,” said math teacher Jennifer Clark, Girls Who Code adviser. “I think that it's important to get girls interested in technology fields.”
Groups provide unique opportunities for students.
Garrison said many of the enrichment activities provided—such as coding and robotics—expose kids to cutting-edge instruction that normally would not be financially accessible to them.
“A lot of these activities are things that people pay a lot of money for,” she said. “They're getting it 100% for free here from certified teachers. I don't know anywhere that does this.”
Frandsen said many WJMS students can’t afford the time or money to participate in competitive sports.
“For a lot of kids outside playing soccer right now, this is where they get to play soccer because they can't afford to be on a team the rest of the week,” he said. “And that's heartbreaking.”
While many district middle schools have a few after-school activities, WJMS has the most extensive program of its kind. Current district policy puts limitations on middle school clubs and activities. The district’s Middle School Philosophy states clubs are only for high schools. Enrichment activities are allowed in middle schools if they do not limit membership, charge dues or require uniforms. Middle school athletic programs must be intramural, based on participation and skill building rather than competition.
Garrison believes providing enrichment activities and clubs is extremely beneficial for middle school-aged students.
“This age is when these kids are finding themselves,” she said. “They can come to our after-school groups, and they could go to any activity of their interest and see what they like.”
Generous funding makes it possible.
WJMS relies on outside funding and grants to run their program. For the last three years, they have received grants from the Ron McBride Foundation. This year’s grant was paid through a $15,000 gift to the foundation from Tammy Sloan, wife of former Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan.
“The Ron McBride Foundation really saved the day,” Frandsen said. “They were really the ones that provided a lot of money for us to pay teachers enough to make it worth their while to stay. We definitely always had teachers willing to volunteer their time—that was the core of our program and it still is. But providing that money has made it a little bit more feasible.”
Frandsen said increased funding has made it possible to expand the program from the eight enrichment activities offered six years ago to about 23 this year.
The program also receives grants from the state and with Title One funding, provides a healthy snack for participating students each afternoon.
They’ve created an award-winning program.
The success of the program was recently recognized when Frandsen was named Utah Afterschool Network’s Site Coordinator of the Year.
“If there ever was an award for taking credit for other people's work, it's that one,” he said. “It should be really for the whole entire program because it's not me. It's a dedicated team of teachers volunteering their time. I really just create an environment for them to be able to do what they want to do.”
Frandsen said it is rare for a school to win this award, which is usually awarded to programs run by community centers such as the Boys and Girls Club or YMCA.
“We're one of the only schools that get it because we create a community center here after school,” Frandsen said. “They are super interested in how we get a school to do all of this.”
Frandsen believes middle school students should have the opportunity to participate in after-school activities and to be a part of something that matters—especially those kids whose circumstances prevent them from accessing sports teams, paid instruction or private lessons.
“These kids need it; they want it,” he said. “The lack of after-school activities really hurts a community like ours.”
What about other middle schools?
Jordan District Communications Director Sandy Riesgraf said middle schools have been able to offer students group activities under the current policy.
“We have groups that essentially are clubs—we just don't call them clubs,” she said.
Over the years, principals have asked the district to review the club policy, which was implemented in 1995. Riesgraf said the policy is currently under review to determine whether any changes need to be made.
“Times have changed, schools have changed and needs have changed,” she said.