NCREL: North Central Regional Education Laboratory
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John Hill is the program director at the Big Rapids Middle School Community Learning Center (CLC). We asked John about the hurdles and surprises in the program's first year and how the staff responded.

Our middle school after-school program was modeled on our elementary program. We'd done a lot of research, so I think we went into the middle school program with our eyes open. We knew that the students weren't performing as well or as consistently as they could have been, and that middle school is a tough age when it comes to getting students excited about school and homework. We set out to build a program that would help them do better academically, but would be compelling and fun.

One of the biggest surprises this year was discovering that middle school students will do just about anything to be with their friends -- even homework. They also like the informal connections with teachers. We've made the most of that. Group activities in drama, history, science, and computer labs extend what students are learning during the day. Recreation activities like miniature golf are built in as an extra incentive. They hook our students in. Best of all, students are getting the homework help and enrichment we want and the social time they want. By the end of the term, everyone notices the results: better grades, better habits, better attitudes.

There have been inevitable first-year hurdles. The new program cut into the time that had been used for regular and after-school teachers to meet. So the technology we once thought of as a luxury -- a computer for each teacher -- is now the primary means of communication between teachers. After-school staff simply access e-mail to find out how students are doing and what area needs work. Parents can access our program through the Internet, and they like knowing what their children are doing. With efficient communication and incentives in place for middle school students to come and stay in the program, we can now spend more time on content and trying new things.