Wilkinsburg after-school program overcomes rocky year

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This school year was a tumultuous one for the 21st Century Community Learning Center at Wilkinsburg Middle School.

The former director of the federally funded after-school program, Christopher Spradley, has been charged with felony theft. He is accused of stealing a 3-D printer, two laptop computers and two Xbox gaming systems from the program in October. He faces formal arraignment Friday.

The STEM-based academic program is now attempting to prepare for its six-week summer session with a new service to offer students: access to the 3-D printer. Four students in the after-school program and a handful of tutors and program partners attended a training session Tuesday to learn how to use the 3-D printer, valued at $3,200.

“Kids don’t just want to read about things or write about things or hear things,” Mary Dodaro, director of youth engagement for the Consortium for Public Education, said to the small group gathered in a school classroom Tuesday afternoon. “They want to hold things in their hands and touch them.”

This is the first year the consortium is partnering with the program in Wilkinsburg School District. The consortium works with another 21st Century program in Clairton School District, and it stepped in to replace Communities in Schools as a partner in Wilkinsburg in October, with only a week to get the program up and running.

The after-school program has about 60 seventh- and eighth-graders enrolled, Ms. Dodaro said. It’s been two years since the Pennsylvania Department of Education awarded the Wilkinsburg district a $369,589 grant to develop the program in 2012. Students meet from 3 to 6 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays to focus on core modules in reading, math and science; enrichment programs focusing on the arts; and to develop life skills such as self-esteem, teamwork, and drug and violence prevention. The program also provides snacks and a hot dinner. Now, she said, students will be able to use the 3-D printer to supplement the after-school lessons.

Julia Brown, programs coordinator of the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Assemble, spent several hours Tuesday showing workshop attendees how to maneuver websites such as Thingiverse, which is an online marketplace to share digital design files, and Tinkercad, a modeling tool for building 3-D prototypes.

Links of chain were then printed for the students, so they could see firsthand the 3-D printing process. David Hutson, a seventh-grader who joined the program this year after he got “tired of trying to find something to do after school,” said watching the printer create the chain links in less than 15 minutes was “mind-boggling.”

“I still don’t know how it would make things without them sticking together, if it’s all made hot,” he said of the printing process, which takes a flexible filament and heats it to help form the three-dimensional product.

David said he would love to make a Nerf gun with the 3-D printer and use it to play with his nephews when he baby-sits. 

It’s that kind of creativity and ingenuity that Jason Boll, an eighth grade English teacher and tutor for the after-school program, said he hopes having the printer available will inspire in students.

“These things all create space for creativity and possibility for narrative worlds,” Mr. Boll said. “Kids can tell a story, create a story, then build it.”

David said he has enjoyed the after-school program and he thinks he’ll participate through the summer and possibly next school year.

“You can’t just sleep and lie around,” he said. “You have to get up and do something. This program gave me something to do.”

Correction (Published May 1, 2014): Julia Brown is programs coordinator of the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Assemble. Her affiliation was misidentified in an earlier version of this story.

Clarece Polke: cpolke@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1889 or on Twitter @clarepolke.

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