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Willmar Middle School after-school program offers academic help and a little fun

About 80 students at Willmar Middle School are participating in the first year of SOAR, an after-school program to offer homework assistance and enrichment activities. Organizers hope the program is successful and can gain community support to help it grow.

Angie Mejia Alvarez, 15, from left, and Greysi Salinas Dubon, 11, laugh while playing a game of Connect 4
Angie Mejia Alvarez, 15, from left, and Greysi Salinas Dubon, 11, laugh while playing a game of Connect 4 at Willmar Middle School during the after-school program Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — If you want to go swimming on Wednesday, you need to show up Tuesday and Thursday for homework help.

That’s the deal for students in the after-school program at Willmar Middle School.

Jose Galindoo Mendoza, 12, folds a paper airplane
Jose Galindoo Mendoza, 12, folds a paper airplane to toss around a classroom at Willmar Middle School during the after-school program Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

The program, called SOAR, is there to help students with homework Tuesday and Thursday. Wednesday is enrichment day, when they get to swim, play dodgeball or learn about art or robotics.

Wednesday after school, the cafeteria was buzzing with students blowing off a little steam after classes were out.

Science teacher Mike Dokkebakken, one of the coordinators, got them organized, handing out colored name tags to tell them where they were to be. Within a few minutes the cafeteria was nearly empty.

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Jeremaih Trevino, 12, drives a robot around the halls of Willmar Middle School
Jeremaih Trevino, 12, drives a robot around the halls of Willmar Middle School during the after-school program Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

About 80 students participate in the program, which is funded by the district’s Targeted Services program. It’s offered three days a week and has a waiting list. It runs from 3:15 to 4:30 p.m.

Before the pandemic, the district had offered a four-day after-school program for nearly a decade, funded by a federal 21st Century Learning Grant. That program served about 200 students, but the district no longer receives the grant.

Carlin Pasos, 14, and classmates rush a row of dodgeballs as a game begins at Willmar Middle School
Carlin Pasos, 14, and classmates rush a row of dodgeballs as a game begins at Willmar Middle School during the after-school program Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Dokkebakken said the school’s experience with that was helpful in developing the new program this year.

As with the former program, students are offered a snack and an evening meal, and are bused home afterward. The program is expected to run through early May.

Paityn Wolf, 11, at left, calls out Bingo numbers as Alicia Hernandez, 11, looks on at Willmar Middle School
Paityn Wolf, 11, left, calls out bingo numbers as Alicia Hernandez, 11, looks on at Willmar Middle School during the after-school program Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Dokkebakken said teachers may contact him or coordinator Assistant Principal Jen Sabol to let them know if a student has assignments due or if they need to work on something in particular.

A group of Middle School teachers work after school, each with 10 students or fewer in a classroom, tackling homework in English, math, science and social studies.

After the school disruptions during the pandemic, the teachers have found that students have needed the most help in math, Dokkebakken said, but the teachers can cover all subjects.

Hermis Alvarado, 13, launches a dodgeball during the afterschool program at Willmar Middle School
Hermis Alvarado, 13, launches a dodgeball during the after-school program at Willmar Middle School on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

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 of young people having multiple caring adults in their lives.

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The program gives kids 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 kids he doesn't work with directly "will see me here, and they'll say hi to me in the hallway."

Dokkebakken said he has gotten to know students who haven't been in his regular classes.

The program allows a less formal atmosphere and offers time to build relationships with the smaller groups of students.

As Dokkebakken put it: “It isn’t as strict as school, but you do have to follow the rules.”

The enrichment days are an important part of the program, he said. They offer some social/emotional learning and can introduce students to activities they may want to pursue in the future.

Two certified lifeguards oversee the swimming and can work with students who are just learning to swim. It can supplement their physical education classes.

West Central Week 0 event Saturday lets robotics teams in the area test their robots for later competitions.

Kuznik said there’s a chance the robotics activities could lead students to join the robotics team when they move on to Willmar Senior High. He also works with a summer robotics program offered at the Middle School and brings kids from area school districts.

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Dokkebakken said the group working with SOAR hopes a successful first year will help build community support to keep the program going and growing.

“We don’t want to start the program and see it gone in a few years,” he said.

The school saw evidence that the 21st Century program made a difference for students, and he hopes to see similar results with the new one.

More by Linda Vanderwerf:
Students from Focus House, a program to help people with special needs prepare for living on their own, have spoken to fourth-graders in the past month about bullying and how to address it. Many of the young adults from Focus House said they've been bullied in the past.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
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