- Associated Press - Sunday, February 12, 2017

BURLINGTON, Iowa (AP) - Believe it or not, the number of Burlington elementary and middle school students choosing to stay at school longer than they need to has grown since a before- and after-school program was instituted at three schools three years ago and it soon may be extended to other elementary schools.

The Partners in Education, Community Educating Students, or PIECES, program takes place from 6:50 to 7:50 a.m. weekdays and 3:15 to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday at Aldo Leopold and Edward Stone middle schools and North Hill Elementary School. The Burlington YMCA offers Youth Night Fridays to PIECES third- through eighth-graders at no charge.

The program may be extended to Sunnyside, Black Hawk, Grimes and Course elementary schools next year pending the approval of a 21st Century federal grant application outreach and 21st Century grant coordinator Cassie Gerst submitted in December. Approval of the application also would fund summer school for the middle and high schools, which would begin after the end of the school year. The initial grant now funds the summer school program at North Hill, the PIECES program and Club M, a mentorship program for Burlington High School and elementary students that meets Wednesdays after school at BHS.

The grant provides the district with $300,000 in each of the first three years. That amount decreased by 25 percent in the fourth year. The goal is for the program to establish enough community partnerships to sustain itself without federal grant money.

Students may attend the program when they want, though many are considered PIECES regulars. In its first year, 627 students participated. Last year’s participation was up to 842 students, and more than 950 students have participated this year.

By offering engaging activities and extra help, PIECES is intended to improve reading and math scores, increase parent engagement, decrease student suspensions and increase attendance.

Last year, based on Iowa Assessment scores, 45 percent of students enrolled in the program showed a year’s growth in math and about 40 percent showed the same in reading, The Hawk Eye (https://bit.ly/2koMhlx ) reported. Scores the first year showed about 35 percent and 33 percent gained a year’s growth in math and reading respectively. The biggest gains were seen in North Hill students, who were up from 27 percent to 77 percent in math growth and up 27 percent to 70 percent in reading.

Absences decreased last year for PIECES students at each of the three schools, though the percent of students with six or fewer absences at Edward Stone is down only slightly from the previous year.

The middle schools showed increased out-of-school suspensions last year, though Edward Stone’s out of school suspensions and office referrals are down this year.

Last year, according to a parent survey completed by 49 parents from throughout the district, 85 percent of parents at North Hill and 81 percent of Aldo parents believed they had a greater involvement in their children’s education. Seventeen percent of Edward Stone parents indicated the same. Not enough parents participated in the survey to meet the PIECES goal of 75 percent.

PIECES also benefits parents through services offered by Young House Family Services, the Burlington Police and Fire departments, Southeastern Community College and others.

Students in the program get weekly visits from community members like Burlington Police officers, F&M; Bank & Trust and Starr’s Cave Nature Center employees. PIECES has 26 community organization partnerships, nearly twice as many as there were when it began in the 2013-14 school year. The partnerships give students an opportunity to explore career paths and develop job skills.

The Burlington Police Department was among the first to partner with PIECES. Officers often drop by the schools when they have free time to provide mentorship, help students with their homework or play a game of football.

“It’s a good opportunity for us to be more friends with kids rather than acting in an enforcement capacity,” said Maj. Darren Grimshaw of the Burlington Police Department.

Grimshaw said Jacalyn Swink, eighth-grade literature teacher at Aldo Leopold Middle School, facilitated the partnership with the police department about the same time Police Chief Doug Beaird, who had expressed interest in getting the department more involved in the community, took over.

The relationship has been beneficial for the students as well as the police officers. With previous drug-education program, DARE, and GREAT gang-resistance training program no longer offered, PIECES offers officers a hands-on and personal way to connect with youth. Grimshaw said interacting with youths outside of disciplinary situations also helps officers better understand where they’re coming from.

“It kind of opens your eyes to the struggles they go through and makes them more real,” he explained.

ADDS also helps fill the gap left by the discontinuation of DARE by providing substance abuse prevention programming.

Other partnerships include the Burlington Public Library, which recently established limited library accounts for students, which don’t require a guardian’s signature; Planned Parenthood, which provides activity programs at the middle schools; the Retired Teachers Organizations, whose members serve as volunteers and staff; several area restaurants that provide food for family nights; Southeastern Community College, which hosts a family night and offers adult literacy assistance, reading strategies for parents and other services; the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, which provide financial support and volunteers; Burlington High School Leo Club with activity programs and volunteers; the Iowa State University Extension Office and many more.

PIECES offers homework help; STEM activities; breakfast and snacks; and numerous clubs and enrichment activities such as crime scene investigation, cheer, cooking, engineering and fashion clubs.

About 150 students at North Hill Elementary School are PIECES regulars. They spend about a half hour on homework before heading to the gymnasium for games or the cafeteria for a snack. Students also can go to classrooms to paint, cook, play music or do crafts, depending on the day of the week.

Fourth-grader Rennoc Cannon spent the earlier part of Tuesday’s program working on math homework. He comes to PIECES every morning and afternoon.

He appreciates the program because he and his fellow students can use the computer lab and build things like a rocket launcher from popsicle sticks, spoons and cottontails. He and the other students also get to make food, like pudding and tacos. He is considering a career as a chef.

Fourth-graders Laila Pope and Liliana Casas especially enjoy cooking and doing crafts. Pope started coming to PIECES last year and told Casas about the program.

“I thought it sounded fun, so I decided to come with Liliana,” Casas said. “Because we’re BFFs.”

This year for Halloween, she and her peers wrote scary stories and reenacted Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, complete with costumes, makeup and the dance. She looks forward to next Halloween.

The “Thriller” activity was a favorite for fifth-grader Nia Lewis. She’s been a PIECES regular since it began.

“I thought it would get me out of the house,” she explained.

Lewis was sitting out from a game of dodge ball in the gymnasium with classmates Shadow Sylvester, Autumn Archer, Nevaeh Stanley, LeKyla Kuyoro and Kamyra Collins. The girls said they like being able to make new friends and hang out after school, but they have grown weary of being hit by the balls other students were throwing at each other.

The physical activities taking place in the gymnasium are good for developing coordination, motor reflexes, balance and social skills. Kindergarten through second-grade students ran relay races Tuesday created on the fly by teachers involving balloons and paddles made from paper plates glued to paint stirrers.

The children had to get the balloon halfway across the gym using only the makeshift paddles. Kindergartner Jayelle Robinson, who set a new jump-rope record for herself before the relay began, dropped the balloon only once when it was her turn.

The gym activities are a favorite for 5-year-old Liana Muller, who moved to Burlington from Germany last summer. She particularly enjoyed the hula-hoops. She also likes singing, and earlier Tuesday learned the song, “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain.”

ELL teacher Teri Martinez has been told Muller asks her mother every day if she gets to stay and play after school.

Classrooms throughout the building host activities for students as well throughout the evening, including painting and music.

Notre Dame Catholic Schools and Great River Christian School students are welcome to participate in PIECES.


Information from: The Hawk Eye, https://www.thehawkeye.com

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