Learning OT

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The Boston Globe
By: Kathleen Burge
December 9, 2010

Inspired by the popularity, and academic advantages, of after-school programs for its younger students, Framingham is lining up a tougher market: high school.

FRAMINGHAM - Huddling in the auditorium of Walsh Middle School, two groups of students pore over glossy advertisements and debate the merits of smart phones, texting, and minutes per month.

Their task: to choose a cellphone service plan and calculate how much it would cost for two years.

One group finishes and a teenager in a blue shirt and jeans goes to the front of the class to summarize its choice. The room is nearly silent as his chalk scrapes against the blackboard. The bottom line: $2,400 for two years.

``That's a lot!'' he says, surprised.

``That is a lot,'' says Karin Semizoglou, a sales manager for TD Bank who is helping to teach the session on financial literacy.

``You could buy a whole car,'' the student adds.

``You could,'' Semizoglou says, with a small smile.

The regular school day is over, but the learning hasn't stopped for these students.

Some of Framingham's after-school programs for its middle school students have been recognized as exemplary by the state; the financial literacy club that meets Monday afternoons at Walsh is one of the district's most popular offerings.

In a study last year, the district found that students who participated in the after-school programs had improved more than their peers in six areas, including solving math problems and communication.

The programs draw 63 students at Walsh and 132 from the district's two other middle schools, out of the total of 1,675 students attending the three schools. The offerings include computer and photography clubs as well as a partnership with the Framingham Police and Fire departments that shows students what they do.

Framingham offers no after-school programs for its high school students, but officials said they plan to change that soon with the aid of a state grant; the district is doing the groundwork to try to make sure the programs are as successful as those in the middle schools, they said.

Despite the academic benefits of after-school programs, those in middle school and upper grades are particularly hard to fill. While elementary school students are typically signed up by their parents and are too young to leave school on their own, the older students can skip programs they don't want to attend.

``If middle school kids don't enjoy your program, they go home,'' said Sybil Schlesinger, volunteer coordinator for Framingham's 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which runs the school-based after-school programs, ``whereas elementary school kids don't have that option.''

Still, compared with the rest of the country, Massachusetts is doing well in getting more students to attend after-school programs. Between 2004 and 2009, the number of Massachusetts students participating in after-school programs jumped to 18 percent, a 7 percent increase, one of the highest in the country, according to a study by the Afterschool Alliance, a national group that advocates after-school programs.

At the same time, the number of students who instead took care of themselves after school - 26 percent in 2009 - also had increased, by 5 percent, a statistic the group found troubling.

Although after-school programs have been around for decades, interest in them and funding has increased in recent years. Parents who cannot be at home after school are looking for places for their children to go once the final school bell rings. And schools that are deemed consistently low-performing under the federal No Child Left Behind Act are required to provide out-of-school educational support to students.

The federal government, which created the 21st Century Community Learning Center program in 1997, spends more than $1 billion on the out-of-school programs.

Last year, for the first time, the state Department of Education awarded grants from federal money to high schools starting after-school programs. This year, Framingham received $135,000, one of eight Massachusetts schools receiving money, and it hopes to begin its program this month.

To help them create programs that will be popular, school officials ran their ideas by focus groups of students.

``They have to be excited about it,'' Schlesinger said. ``They have to love what they're doing.''

School officials hope to start with about 50 to 60 students and expand each year. They're looking at tutoring for students, as well as project-based courses - such as starting a copy center - that would give struggling students academic credit.

Alana Lipkin's son Gus, an eighth-grader at Walsh, had participated in many of the after-school programs, and now attends the financial literacy club.

Between the time school ends and the club begins, students can work on their homework in the library, an arrangement that has helped her son finish his homework more productively, Lipkin said. Otherwise, she said, ``It would be a lot of procrastination and a lot more missing assignments.''

She also likes the opportunities the program provides. Her son has taken cooking classes and computer classes through the program, as well as participated in a summer robotics program. ``It's been terrific,'' she said.

The financial literacy club is a partnership with TD Bank, which trains employees to go into schools and teach the class.

In the Framingham class, Semizoglou teaches students the difference between needs and wants. She asks the students to write down something they want to buy. Answers range from video games to a Sponge Bob movie - ``That movie's awesome, OK?'' says the boy who writes it down, when his classmates tease him - to braces and a laptop.

Another eighth-grader, Kristina Vega, says if she were not at the after-school program, she'd be home watching television or talking to friends online.

She joined the financial literacy club, she says, because ``I wanted to learn how to save money.''

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com

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