At OH, it’s academic

When the dismissal bell rings at Orchard Heights Elementary in Port Orchard, not every student is eager to go home.

More than 220 students spread through the school’s six highest grade levels now spend their Tuesday and Thursday afternoons happily engaged in a variety of activities — playing disc golf, relay games or chess, attending art classes ... and practicing for the WASL.

The new Orchard Heights Academy is an after-school program that includes a variety of classes and activities for registered students. Classes are taught and activities supervised by Orchard Heights teachers and select members of the community.

For the first hour after school, students continue to focus on academics in classrooms located throughout the building, with classes titled “WASL Wonders,” “Homework Help,” “Shark Tutorial,” and “Shark Support.”

The second hour? Fun and games, or “Choice Activities,” including chess, basketball, art, drum-making and science fun.

Students are grouped in academic classes according to grade level. At its inception, the Academy was structured to accommodate students whose teachers extended “invitations” to them based on prior performance on the WASL. Now, students of all abilities are eager to attend.

In two weeks, the Academy’s enrollment has almost doubled.

Michael Greller’s fifth grade WASL preparation class is gaining momentum.

Greller has been teaching at Orchard Heights for three years.

“There is quite a bit of excitement for the Academy as a whole,” Greller said. “Many kids were sincerely disappointed and upset when they didn’t get an initial invite. The kids really want to be a part of this. They seem excited to work with different kids, different teachers, and participate in activities that may be unique.”

Greller’s motivation for volunteering to stay after school?

“I especially love getting to run around outside and play disc golf with 40 highly energized kids,” Greller said. “It’s quite an adrenaline rush. It’s fun to play with the kids. We’re serious all day, and after the school day ends, some of the pressure is taken off and we get to have fun.”

On Tuesday, Greller’s class kept busy making “thinking maps” — a web of progressively connected thoughts and ideas stemming off a main topic — to assist them during the writing portion of the WASL.

The second graders are less reflective but bursting with enthusiasm. The majority of students in Marcia Coyne’s “Shark Club” don’t see the Academy as an extension of the school day.

“We’re trying to get better at reading,” Coyne exclaims as she carefully points to each individual word in a large-print book located on an easel at her side as dozens of enthusiastic students carefully pronounce every word.

“It was the staff’s decision to do this,” said Orchard Height Principal David LaRose said. “We had to sacrifice other luxuries to get this thing up and running.”

According to LaRose, almost all of the school’s yearly budget went into building the Academy, from snacks and supplies, to paying Orchard Heights’ staff for the extra hours they spend teaching.

So far, the school has committed $27,000 to the project.

Former school board member Gregg Scott teaches an art class during activity time. With a background in marketing, advertising and illustration, he said the Academy was worth investing in.

“Orchard Heights was going to receive some funding through Title I, but didn’t,” Scott said. “The staff decided to start the Academy anyway. I think that really says something about their commitment to these kids.”

With Scott’s help, the Academy received it’s first donation — $5,000 from the Port Orchard Rotary. According to LaRose, the school will be submitting grants to the South Kitsap School District and local tribal agencies, eventually seeking significant financial support from agencies such as After School Alliance and 21st Century Grants. Corporate sponsorship is also on the horizon to ensure the program remains strong.

Overall, LaRose explained the Academy as a manifestation of the staff’s priorities. They want to give the kids a safe place to go.

“It’s not perfect,” Greller said, of the Academy, “but I think when you put all the parts together, it really is a lot bigger than just preparing for the WASL.”

For more information on Orchard Heights Academy call (360) 443-3530.

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