EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Practicing karate, solving puzzles, reading and designing superhero comics and more, the kids in the ASPIRE program at the Dr. Joyanne D. Miller Elementary School seemed to be having a blast on a recent afternoon.

In one classroom, students were working a puzzle, trying to figure out the numbers that would work in three equations. The same number had to go in each green circle, a different number in the red circle. The kids had a good guess, which worked for two of the three, but it fell apart on the third. They had to keep trying until they found numbers that fit every equation.

It looked like a covert introduction to algebra.

In another classroom, the X-Men made way for the Justice League on a television screen while students designed their own superheroes in the comics and heroes class. English language arts concepts like conflict, setting and plot were just part of the fun.

“We get very sneaky,” said Kristen Boyd, the program director for the After School Program for Instruction, Recreation and Enrichment, or ASPIRE.

Funded through a $2.5 million grant, the program runs 3:30-6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and there is a summer program as well. The grant means Boyd has $500,000 a year for five years to operate, mostly with staff who are already teachers in the school or at least in the district.

On Thursday, Oct. 26, parents and other family members got a close look at the program while accompaning their student through a typical afternoon. ASPIRE was one of thousands of programs in the After School Alliance to participate in a “Lights on Afterschool” open house around the country that day.

Things kicked off in the gymnasium for attendance and some discussion from Boyd and others, then the adults could follow the schedule to see the TV production workshop, physical activity, chess club and many more activities, including mindful coloring.

“So if you need to relax and de-stress, that is the classroom to visit,” Boyd told parents.

Heading toward that class, Boyd said she wanted to include some downtime for the kids, and that she had been exploring incorporating mindfulness education concepts in the program.

“I wanted some room for the kids to just chill,” she said. “But they’re kids. They need to do something. So we came up with mindful coloring.”

In the classroom, the children were settling in. Told to sit wherever they want, a considerable number chose the floor, some under the desks. Because of an event earlier at the school, most of the kids were wearing costumes. They started with a centering and relaxation exercise before the coloring began.

Down the hall in the gym, students were engaged in an activity that was decidedly less relaxing. Donna Papaychik was teaching a Korean style of karate to a group of fourth-graders. A teacher in the school, she also is a black belt. The students lined up in rows, shoes off and many in costume, ready to start practicing some kicks in the air. 

Boyd said the program incorporates physical activity, classroom time and homework help. Some of the kids participated in basketball drills, or worked on volleyball or dance. The classes included brain-busting puzzles, a CSI class modeled on concepts from the hit TV show, robotics and more. STEM infuses everything, Boyd said, using the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.

The program lines up with what students are learning in their classrooms, she said, allowing teachers to cover things they don’t have time for during the regular school day.

“The goal is to be aligned with the school day, and to expand the learning time,” she said. “If they’re learning about volcanos in class, you can bet we’re going to build a volcano here.”

The homework help has been a hit, Boyd said, and she has expanded that element to include additional homework assistance for those who would benefit from closer attention.

Back in the math puzzle class, called Perplexus, Diane DeMaio worked with her grandson, Gianni DePiano, on one of the problems. She had high praise for the program, from the homework help to the time spent with each student.

“Mrs. Boyd and everybody here is wonderful,” she said.

The students are divided into 10 color-coded groups, six for fourth-graders, four for fifth grade. The students were asked to rank the groups they wanted to be part of by preference, and Boyd said she tried to get everyone into their first or second choice, or at least in a group with their friends.

This is the first of five years for the program, and Boyd said there is a chance for renewal for another five years. Before coming to the EHT district, she was the coordinator for a similar program in Mullica Township.

The grant for ASPIRE comes through the state Department of Education’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, funded with federal dollars.

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