WILLMAR — If you want to go swimming on Wednesday, you have to show up Tuesday and Thursday for homework help.
That’s the deal for students in the after-school program at Willmar Middle School.
The program, called SOAR, is there to help students with homework on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Wednesday is enrichment day, when they can swim, play dodgeball, or learn about art or robotics.
Wednesday after school, the cafeteria was buzzing with students unwinding after class was over.
Science teacher Mike Dokkebakken, one of the coordinators, organized them by giving them colored badges to tell them where they needed to be. Within minutes, the cafeteria was almost empty.
About 80 students participate in the program, which is funded by the district’s Targeted Services program. It is offered three days a week and has a waiting list. It operates from 3:15 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Prior to the pandemic, the district had offered a four-day after-school program for nearly a decade, funded by a federal 21st Century Learning Grant. This program served approximately 200 students, but the district no longer receives the grant.
Dokkebakken said the school’s experience in this area has been helpful in developing the new curriculum this year.
As with the old program, students are offered a snack and an evening meal, then are taken home by bus. The program is expected to run until early May.
Dokkebakken said teachers can contact him or deputy senior coordinator Jen Sabol to let them know if a student has homework due or needs to work on something in particular.
A group of middle school teachers work after school, each with 10 or fewer students in a class, tackling homework in English, math, science and social studies.
After school disruptions during the pandemic, teachers found students needed the most help in math, Dokkebakken said, but teachers can cover all subjects.
Another benefit of the program is that it allows students to get to know another adult in the school. Numerous studies have shown the importance for young people of having several caring adults in their lives.
The program gives children another familiar adult face in the hallway.
“I interact with kids I don’t have as students,” said science teacher John Kuznik, who works with the program. Even the kids he doesn’t work with directly “will see me here, and they’ll say hello to me in the hallway.”
Dokkebakken said he got to know students who hadn’t taken his regular classes.
The program allows for a less formal atmosphere and provides time to build relationships with small groups of students.
As Dokkebakken said, “It’s not as strict as school, but you have to follow the rules.”
Enrichment days are an important part of the program, he said. They provide social/emotional learning and can introduce students to activities they may want to pursue in the future.
Two certified lifeguards supervise swimming and can work with students who are learning to swim. It can complement their physical education classes.
Kuznik said there is a chance that robotics activities will lead to students joining the robotics team when they move on to Willmar Senior High. He also works with a robotics summer program offered in middle school and brings in kids from area school districts.
Dokkebakken said the group working with SOAR hopes a successful first year will help build community support to sustain the program and its growth.
“We don’t want to start the program and see it disappear in a few years,” he said.
The school has seen evidence that the 21st Century curriculum has made a difference for students, and it hopes to see similar results with the new one.