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The City Journals

Beacon Heights lights up world after school

Dec 06, 2016 03:46PM ● By Travis Barton

Jon Puskar of the Utah Grizzlies stands with group leaders and students of the Beacon Heights Elementary after-school program. (Elsa Davis/Salt Lake City School District)

By Travis Barton | [email protected]

Through dark winter afternoons, Lights On Afterschool program brings illumination to the students at Beacon Heights Elementary School. 

The school celebrated the importance of after-school programs on Oct. 14 with a magician and appearance by Kim Bowman. The event was meant to spread awareness of after-school programs like the ones run at Beacon Heights.

Elsa Davis, after school program coordinator, said it’s helpful for the academic standing of many children. 

“What’s great is they’ve been able to prove that after-school programs and children involved in them helps close the achievement gap for kids who are typically struggling in school,” Davis said. The program runs throughout the school year. 

Beacon Heights daily after-school attendance hovers between 35 and 45 students with a mandatory 50 minutes of dedicated homework and reading time. 

“It’s a really safe, structured environment to get their work done,” Davis said. She added they’ve seen school performances increase for students especially since they ensure kids finish their homework. 

They also hold different enrichment activities, which vary from day to day. Educational activities can include a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) or a computer math program that teaches students different ways to learn about the subject. 

Other endeavors can include gym activities, yoga or art projects. Davis said they go on field trips once a month to places such as Wheeler Farm and This is The Place Heritage Park.  They also bring in outside presenters like HawkWatch to teach kids about birds of prey or Kim’s Cold-Blooded Creatures where kids can interact with reptiles and tarantulas. 

“I find the kids have the opportunity to kind of learn things that they don’t necessarily learn during day school,” Davis said. In November, Jon Puskar of the Utah Grizzlies hockey team spent time with the kids. 

After-school research shows it helps kids develop skills like teamwork, leadership and critical thinking.

Grouped with those learning benefits are also social gains. Davis said she sees kids struggle making friends, but after school they interact with kids not always in their class or grade. 

“They have those friendly faces that they can see in day school, it kind of helps build those social structures,” Davis said. 

According to the Afterschool Alliance, 92 percent of parents in Utah are satisfied with their children’s after-school programs while 47 percent of parents say they would enroll their students if programs were available to them. 

The biggest beneficiary of the after-school programs may the group leaders themselves. Davis said the favorite part of her job is working with “these wonderful, brilliant children.” 

Davis, in her second year at Beacon Heights, stepped away from working in after-school programs for some time. When she came back, she quickly realized there’s much to learn from kids. 

“I love witnessing the way they’re not prejudiced towards anybody, their willingness to make friends and try and change,” Davis said. “I feel like I’ve learned more from them than they will ever learn from me.”

While Davis’ work hours are capped at 25 per week with no benefits, she said she’d rather do this than anything else. 

Davis grew up as a latchkey kid where those hours between school and when parents come home from work can be a dangerous time for kids. After-school programs reduce the chance of children engaging in risky behaviors like crime or drug use. 

“They’re supervised after school, there’s not this window of time where they can go cause mischief,” Davis said. 

South Salt Lake found that their juvenile crime rate dropped 60 percent after rebooting one of their after-school programs in 2007. In Utah, almost 100,000 youth are responsible for taking care of themselves after school. 

Beacon Heights is a fee-based school where parents pay for their children to participate in the program. Title One schools require grants so kids can attend at a reduced price or for free. 

Davis said she would love to see more legislation allowing more funds to be put into after-school programs since private donations and grants can only cover so much. 

“These are private people and organizations that have limited amounts of funds,” Davis said. She added that staffing was difficult at the beginning of the year with a need for 75 group leaders. 

“I’m limited to 25 hours a week and I’m not benefit eligible…so it’s really hard to kind of keep employees,” Davis said.