Enrichment Gets Smart

Edward Vendrow likes to play chess. So much so that last year he won back-to-back tournaments run through Peninsula-based Bay Area Chess, an after-school program he and his two brothers enjoy.


But that wasn’t the only thing Edward won. The strategies and logic he learned in chess have translated to better grades in school.


Edward’s experiences are a great example of what school enrichment programs can and should be. As California schools struggle beneath the twin burdens of a budget crisis and a national recession, many enrichment programs are fighting for survival. Yet educators and parents alike say that they are now more important than ever.


Extra-curricular enrichment programs that enhanced education by exposing children to different modes of learning, as well as to some experiences that were not offered in the classroom, were solidly the flavor for many years. Parents could choose from everything from extended daycare to swim class, music and art, gymnastics, cooking, tutoring help, and science and math, among other things.


Sadly, as California joined the nation in a recessionary spiral, many programs suffered after losing federal or state grant money, along with participants whose parents could no longer afford to send them to “extra” classes.


That’s a shame for a lot of reasons, says Salman Azhar, executive director of Bay Area Chess. His classes focus on mental education using chess and puzzles as a means to achieve that goal, knowing that lessons learned across the chess board can be used in other academic arenas.


Unlikely ally

Surprisingly, some of the main resources keeping supplementary education programs afloat are the much-maligned No Child Left Behind law and other standardized programs. As educators find that they have to “teach to the test,” parents are seeking a more comprehensive education for their children outside of traditional classrooms.


Anita Tom, who owns a Kumon center in San Francisco’s Chinatown, says that enrollment is increasing at her center, an indication of both the success of its programs as well as a desire from parents to offer additional motivation to their children, who may be bored in school.


Bay Area Chess’s Azhar agrees. “I believe (enrichment) programs are in danger of shrinking, but not ending,” he says, adding that standardized education programs wind up being “dull and boring” and ultimately disengage the student. “All these topics can be taught in interesting and engaging ways,” he says.


But one thing is clear: No matter how attractive “softer” programs like cooking and sports are, parents will put academics first.


“Economic challenges cause families to prioritize which after school activities are most important,” says Kumon manager Jenny Cherrytree. “Academic enrichment programs are sure to make the top of lists.”


The entire Bay Area has seen an increase in the growth of after-school tutoring programs, many mandated through the school districts and funded under the No Child Left Behind grants for Title One and failing schools. These programs, free to the students, are targeting low-income families in areas that have schools with failing Annual Year Progress (AYP). (A school with a negative AYP three years running is subject to takeover by the state.)


Most districts, wishing to avoid the complications of a state takeover, encourage these tutoring programs that hire credentialed teachers to teach for 20 hours a week, usually at local libraries.


‘Cool’ learning environments

Private tutoring companies also thrive under NCLB. The Lafayette Academy in Lafayette offers tutoring in a private setting. Students there arrive in front of an old-style popcorn machine encouraging them to fill up their bags and enjoy fresh popcorn while learning.


“They make it a cool place to learn,” says Jason Rigsby, who was a tutor there. “The focus was on the student and helping them gain confidence.”


That’s a philosophy copied in many enrichment programs. “Each child learns at his or her own pace, and progresses according to his or her own personal development,” Cherrytree says of her center’s focus. “Parents who are looking for additional support in their child’s growth often turn to us for support after school, specifically because we excel at fostering independent, happy and successful students – the kind who are able to meet the goals they set for themselves both in academics and in life.”


Many public schools also maintain after-school enrichment programs, usually with parents paying a nominal amount. One group frequently brought in is Mad Science, which services every major North American city as well as 19 countries worldwide.  They offer a hands-on, project-based instructional camp focusing on science to compensate for what they perceive as a failure of students gaining any measure of proficiency in the subject.


“The classes were exciting and the instructor was wonderful,” says parent Joan Hernandez of Martinez. “My son thought it was really neat and wants to do it again.”


Having fun while learning is what proponents of enrichment programs insist is the essential part about education; true learning is more than just the facts that go into test-taking.


André Gensburger is an educator and writer. Visit his blog at MisterWriter.com.

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