After-school culture club

26th March 2004 at 00:00
TES correspondents report on a conference in Dublin of education ministers and officials from 30 OECD countries

The last bell signals the end of lessons at Woodmere elementary school in the city of Portland. But, for about a fifth of those attending this Oregon state primary, school's far from over.

Children aged five to 11 choose from remedial education and academic enrichment to arts, craft and self-esteem classes.

The ranks won't thin until 6pm, in time for working parents to pick their children up. By then, parents themselves will begin filing into the building. There is a creche for the youngsters while they take lessons in English, parenting skills or pick from a menu of cultural activities.

Diane Selden, Woodmere site manager says: "Every time parents cross the school threshold, kids do better."

The theory that the extent of a school's engagement in supportive community networks is a significant determinant of pupils' test scores was a key talking point at the OECD education ministers' conference in Dublin.

Woodmere is taking part in Portland's Schools United Neighbourhoods (Sun) scheme which has turned 46 schools across the West Coast city into community hubs. It is one of a growing number of US schools making space for health clinics and social services alongside classrooms. Martin Blank of the Coalition for Community Schools estimates there are now 5,000, up from 3,000 five years ago.

The trend is transforming the workplace for thousands of teachers, now working beside community nurses, social workers and psychological counsellors.

A coalition study in 2003 found children's academic achievement had improved in three-quarters of schools pioneering community schemes. There were also fewer drop-outs.

At Woodmere, 87 per cent of students qualify for free or subsidised lunches, putting them on or below America's breadline.

For half, English is not spoken at home. More than one in three are still mastering it themselves. In the cafeteria, Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian students mingle with Hispanic, Vietnamese, Filipino, Tongan and African friends.

Resident social worker Jackie Tate is on hand to help. Her job covers anything from finding a mother a refuge from domestic violence to lending families money if they cannot pay a utility bill.

Mentoring co-ordinator Laurel Himes-Ferris tells a mother about the school volunteer Woodmere hopes can bring her daughter out of her shell. Teachers noticed Karinna, age eight, was falling behind."She's the middle child and was getting lost in the struggle," says Selden.

In computer class, Ryan, eight, cracks his knuckles like a concert pianist and displays his 65-words-a-minute typing skills. "He's my kick," says teaching assistant Sue Groves.

Assistants, who work with teachers by day, provide continuity between after-school activities and Woodmere's academic goals, says principal Heather Hull.

"Sun's also a way to blend our cultures," Hull adds. In the gymnasium, all-American basketball gives way to traditional Aztec dancing. Dance leader Tonakuauhtli Hernandez said: "It's like a cornfield, each of us is a seed and the new generation is the next harvest."

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