J-Space expands minds and opportunities: Where learning goes beyond the bell

The Jewish Voice

Friday, August 19, 2016

By Kara Marziali

“Do you know how lucky we are?” she chimed, as she slung a purple backpack over her shoulders. Then with one hand, she swiftly took hold of her dad’s jacket trying to get his attention, and in the other hand she was showing off a colorful ceramic tile. “We get to do soooo much here! Look at what I made at pottery last week.”

It was 6 p.m. on a school night last spring when this fourth-grader left the Eides Family J-Space After School Program at the Dwares JCC. As she exited the building, I could still hear her chattering on about all the things she did that afternoon: “I went swimming, had a snack, watered the garden and even finished all my homework.”

Our Jewish community has long had a commitment to after-school programming. In an age when most students come from homes where both parents are working, we have an obligation to provide safe and engaging places (or J-Spaces) for children during the crucial hours from 3 to 6 p.m.

“The demand for high-quality after-school and summer learning programs continues to grow as families, youth and communities learn of the many benefits offered by those programs,” says Betsy Brand, executive director of American Youth Policy Forum.

The benefits for children include academic achievement, better grades, lower risk of juvenile crime, interpersonal skills, socialization, learning new skills, improved behavior and physical wellness. For working parents, after-school programs alleviate child care and safety concerns. There is peace of mind from knowing one’s child is safe and engaged until pick-up time. J-Space resonates with both kids and parents for these reasons and more. It’s a win-win.

Quality after-school programs, where hands-on activities take place each day, combine learning and youth development. The experienced J-Space staff understands that children and youth in different age groups have different academic, psychological and physical activity needs, so they provide a variety of activities and choices offered under a set routine and guided by Jewish values.

Children enrolled in J-Space enjoy wholesome cooking, gardening, physical activities and healthy eating as part of the nationally recognized Discover CATCH (Coordinated Approach To Childhood Health) curriculum. Additionally these children partake in activities that are aligned with national educational standards, which include STEAM learning (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics). Students are given opportunities to plan and run activities based on a monthly theme, which encourages peer interaction and builds leadership skills.

After-school programs such as J-Space have also made it a goal to improve the health and wellness of students by providing them with access to nutritious foods and promoting healthy habits as well as keeping them physically fit.

Parents choose to send their children to these programs, and children want to attend. What better way to enhance and complement the school day? Most kids don’t even know they are learning engineering principles by building a rollercoaster, mastering fractions when cooking or exercising as they enjoy the pool.

Even former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and founder of After-School All-Stars is a fan of after-school programming.  “These programs help kids with homework, teach them teamwork, engage them in community service, pair them with mentors, help them to be physically fit, involve them in activities like rocketry and robotics, and much more.”

A recent survey conducted by The Afterschool Alliance (no affiliation with the Jewish Alliance), a nonprofit advocacy organization, has some surprising facts about after-school care in the Ocean State.

In Rhode Island 17% (27,062) of K-12 youth are responsible for taking care of themselves after school.

Of all Rhode Island children not currently enrolled in after- school programs, 30% (37,471) would be likely to participate if an after-school program was available in their community.

90% of parents in Rhode Island are satisfied with the after-school program their child attends.

22% (34,704) of Rhode Island’s K-12 children participate in after-school programs.

And if those numbers were not telling enough, J-Space parents and kids are also endorsing the after-school program.

One dad explains, “We have been JCC members for several years, and both our boys are in J-Space. I want to tell you how much we appreciate this program. The attention to detail, great staff, van transportation and learning opportunities for the kids are fabulous!”

One mom said, “My son absolutely loves J-Space. He learns a lot there, and he enjoys the whole program.”

Another parent affirms, “It just works great with my schedule. I don’t have to worry about my daughter after school. I know she’s taken care of, and I can pick her up when I get out of work.”

But the real proof is when you ask the children who attend the Eides Family J-Space After School Program. I had the pleasure of spending some time with a group of J-Space students in the spring, and when I questioned what they enjoy most, I received a host of answers. The exchange between several students went something like this:

“Um, pottery,” said Larissa.

“No, swimming…I love swimming!” Malcolm wanted to make sure I heard him.

“Homework help is good,” said Noah. “Well, I hate the homework, but I like that I can get help if I need it.”

His sister, Julia, chimed in, “And it’s done before we get home.”

“I like when we make snacks,” said Ben.

“I like when we eat snacks!” said Ezra.

“Sometimes our snacks come from our garden,” Yaakov said, while Opal and Violet rattled off a host of greenhouse and garden goodies.

“You forgot to tell her that last year we picked lima beans,” Charlie reminded us.

Julian, Sivan and Tomer wanted me to know about the STEAM-related activities that they enjoy.

“Shannon is awesome!” said Norah, referring to Shannon Kochanek, the director of after- school and vacation camps.

“It’s ALL awesome!” said Eden. As the other children nodded in agreement, the endorsement seemed unanimous.

So, how are your kids spending their time after school?

KARA MARZIALI is the communications director of the Jewish Alliance.

J-Space expands minds and opportunities: Where learning goes beyond the bell

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