By Amy Wenk

amywenk@reporternewspapers.net

At 5 p.m. on a weeknight, the lights were on at Sandy Springs Charter Middle School.

That Thursday evening, Nov. 12, resident Irene Schweiger peeked through a window into the school cafeteria. A dozen or so kids dressed in white robes lined up in front of instructor Jeff Gilbert of Master Pius Martial Arts for a lesson.

Schweiger, executive director for the nonprofit Sandy Springs Education Force, couldn’t contain her excitement.

“We are making a difference in their lives,” she said. “That is what it is all about.”

Sandy Springs Middle School is a Title 1 school, meaning a large percentage of students are from low-income families, so few kids are afforded extracurricular pursuits.

But that has changed this year. The Education Force has partnered with After-School All-Stars Atlanta (under the direction of Georgia State University) to help fund an afterschool program at the middle school.

It is held five days a week, from 4 to 6 p.m. Families pay $200 for each nine-week session; four are held a year.

“Our purpose is to help kids say no to drugs, gangs and violence and yes to health, learning and life,” said Lyndsey Greene, associate executive of After-School All-Stars Atlanta. “That 3 to 6 [p.m.] period after school is the time that most kids get in trouble. We want to provide enrichment and academic motivation for our kids, so they stay in school and do better.”

Although After-School All-Stars is a national program that came to Atlanta around the 1996 Olympic Games and now is in nine schools, this is its first year in Sandy Springs.

“I already see that we are making a difference,” Greene said.

Currently, the program has around 200 participants or about one-fourth of the student population, Principal Kay Walker said. Attendance each day, she added, is around 80 percent of those enrolled. Other Atlanta programs average 65 percent.

“The parents love it, especially our parents who work and can’t afford activities for their children,” said Walker, noting bus transportation is provided. “It keeps [students] from possibly becoming involved in activities that aren’t so constructive.

Work comes first

Monday through Thursday, the first hour of the program is for academics.

Teachers help students with homework or tutor them on problematic subjects. There is “no social time,” according to instructor Christie Whaley.

She said teachers communicate with the after-hours crew to best target a student’s needs. For instance, an email might be sent about a test the next day.

“That communication is what is going to further [student] success,” Schweiger said.

When the students take the CRCT (Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests) in April, the Education Force will compare the results with last year’s to monitor academic improvement.

Then you can play

The second hour is filled with activities like martial arts, dance, chess, computer technology or tennis.

“It’s fun, enriching things for the kids,” Schweiger said.

It also allows teachers to get creative.

On Nov. 12, math teacher Katie Ryan, who majored in political science and dance, was teaching a handful of girls modern techniques in the hallway.

In another room, school social worker Catherine Peterson held a class on scrapbooking where kids crafted artistic expressions of themselves onto paper.

Seventh-grader Alexander Brownlee quietly pasted his hand-drawn cartoons and original poetry onto black-and-red stationary, while sixth-grader Samira Hibbler was working hard to feature her favorite things like the color purple. Other girls crowded the computer, shopping images and giggling.

Fridays require only fun, said Schweiger. Students hear speakers or go on field trips for the full two hours.

On Oct. 23, resident Denise Kitchings shared her talents of dance, song and music with the students of Sandy Springs Charter Middle School.

“Persistence, patience, drive and ambition is the most important thing for you,” local performer Kitchings told the kids in between Congo beats and a capella renditions.

Other “fun Fridays” have invited officers from Sandy Springs Fire Rescue and students from North Springs Charter High School who spoke about healthy eating and fitness.

“We are trying to bring some of the community in … and give [students] cultural enrichment they wouldn’t normally get,” Schweiger said.

For more information or to donate to the program, visit www.sandyspringseducationforce.org or www.atlafterschoolallstars.org.