After-school program sparks students' interest at Quaker Valley

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For many Quaker Valley students, staying after school may be the best part of their day.

Six years ago, the district began an after-school program under the direction of Jeff Evancho, a middle school art teacher. While Mr. Evancho was completing his doctoral degree in education, he studied the impact of art on all aspects of education.

He learned of Project Zero, a research-based program out of Harvard Graduate School of Education that helps educators create out-of-school learning experiences so students can think in new, critical and creative methods and evaluate their learning experiences.

“A large component is also using students as mentors, not only for other students, but for their teachers,” Mr. Evancho said. “The idea was turning the teachers back into learners as well.” 

Wanting to expand on this concept of learning, district officials considered creating a charter school for the arts, assistant superintendent Heidi Ondek said.

“We wrote a grant proposal with that in mind,” she said. The district received $75,000 from the Heinz Endowments for the pilot project, but officials instead focused on an after-school program for middle school students, using the concepts from Project Zero.

Studio Life, Quaker Valley’s program, focused on the arts — Mr. Evancho’s area of expertise.

“We decided on an after-school program and targeted some of our at-risk students along with seeking students to volunteer to come,” Ms. Ondek said. It didn’t work as well as officials had hoped.

What did work were the volunteering and mentoring components of the program. Officials tinkered with the focus and evaluated the program, and enrollment climbed from 24 to 50 in the first two years. 

In the third year, high school students were invited to the middle school to monitor the younger students, and officials observed that participants were doing better in their classroom studies, were seeking more challenging and rigorous work on their own, and had better attendance.

“The first focus was on the arts, but then we said, ‘Can we replicate this program?’ After all, a lot of people don’t take the arts very seriously, despite the research. We decided to look at other areas,” he said.

Studio Art expanded into robotics, social studies, languages and other courses such as the recently introduced class, “Intergenerational Connections — connecting the past to the present to impact the future.”

The students said they enjoy the after-school program. Peter Heres, 17, a junior at Quaker Valley, participates in the philosophy circle.

“We look at hot topics that we don’t really explore in the regular classroom. We’ve discussed universal health care, gun control, things that we don’t have time to discuss in class,” he said.

“And we are free to say whatever we want, we don’t have to watch what we say and be judged. It is an incredible educational experience,” Peter said.

Sophomore Gia Veltre, 16, and senior Lydia Sopp, 17, participate in the arts programming. For Gia, serving as a mentor has been one of the most rewarding aspects of Studio Life.

“I’ve learned how to be a good teacher. They come to me and ask me what I think — that has helped me to really grow,” she said.

Lydia said she enjoys the collaboration with her peers.

“It taught me how to work with others. In a traditional classroom, we are usually working alone and we don’t really get to learn other’s perspectives. Here, we learn to collaborate but also to give and take constructive criticism from others,” she said.

Mazher Udaipurwala, 18, a senior, said participating in the arts program helped him shape his goals to study industrial design at the Cleveland Institute of Art next year.

“I have a passion for arts and this experience gave me the chance to decide to follow my own path, to design my own curriculum — and now I have my own identity,” he said.

“In a classroom, you have the teacher telling you what to do,” he said. “Here, I decide.”

Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer:

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