Harper WoodsDecember 13, 2013
Vista Maria brings after-school program to Harper Woods
By April Lehmbeck
C & G Staff Writer
HARPER WOODS ― The bell signaling the last class period of the day for Harper Woods Middle School students doesn’t mark the end of the educational and social opportunities for the students.
Thanks to a partnership between the school district and Vista Maria, an organization that works with vulnerable youth, the Journey to Success program offers students after-school programming, learning, mentorship and counseling in the afternoon, Mondays through Thursdays.
The program launched in late October and has been growing since the first day. The students start their afternoon with a meal through the district’s free meal program. Then, they retreat to the activities planned for that day. Activities range from swimming and cooking to dance, academic support and conflict resolution, and male responsibility groups.
“I love the program,” middle school student Zacharias Muhammad said. “It has all the things that I couldn’t do at my old school.”
Muhammad noted activities like chess, games and groups that the students could take part in. He said he’s been learning through the program, as well.
“The groups are for learning about responsibility, how to take care of your health, things like that,” he said.
Another student said she enjoyed the cooking, swimming and art classes.
The best part of the planned activities are that students and parents gave input on what types of opportunities they wanted to take part in after school through the program.
“We do focus groups to find out what the kids want,” Journey to Success program manager Gregory Everett said.
The program includes guest speakers and field trips, too, like an upcoming skating party.
“We try to engage them by offering positive things to do,” said Carlos Marino, lead community-based counselor with the Journey to Success program.
“The cooking classes are really popular,” Marino said of one of the opportunities, adding that it’s more than learning how to cook; it’s also fostering positive conversations about nutrition and health. “It gets to the point of why we’re here ― to make a positive difference in these children’s lives.”
This isn’t Vista Maria’s first run at this program. They also have had the after-school program running in Dearborn Heights for a couple of years, which also has been a success.
Harper Woods has a number of opportunities for students, but there was a need for more programs for middle school students. Vista Maria and Superintendent Todd Biederwolf talked and felt this program would provide positive opportunities for middle school students in the district, Vista Maria representatives said.
“Our offerings are provided by a combination of both volunteers and people who we partner with in the community,” Everett said.
“We want this to be a total community thing,” Marino said.
Vista Maria representatives praised the district administration and staff, saying that they laid out the red carpet for the Journey to Success program.
While they’ve only been in the district the last several weeks, Marino is seeing good things.
“It seems that we’re having a real positive effect on the kids,” he said.
“They love the program,” said Vista Maria representative Mark Miller.
Marino agreed, saying that both the parents and students seem to have embraced the program.
“They’ve been talking about us at home, as well,” Miller said of the feedback he’s been receiving from parents. “That’s good to know we’re making an impact.”
They had an initial goal of 125 students taking part, but they’re getting close to reaching that goal after the first several weeks.
They see more students interested each day.
The Journey to Success staff are working with teachers to find out the students’ needs — like academic, behavior or attendance issues — and they’ll work with those students.
Miller said it’s also positive for the students to see good role models there each day of the program.
When it comes to assessing how the program is working, they have that covered, as well. They get permission to look at attendance records to see if a child’s attendance issues are improving or to look at grades for those who were struggling.
“We track outcomes on almost everything that we do,” Everett said.
“Our goal is we want to see attendance increase in school, better grades semester to semester, fewer disciplinary actions,” he said. “We want to see student achievement — not only have fun.”