This is the third in a series of articles, written by Christina Brown, that show how community members are using the Pathway to Student Success. The Pathway was created and endorsed by local youth and adults as a guide to engage everyone in building strong community by supporting youth on their journey to becoming the next generation of skilled workers, engaged citizens and civic leaders.

Grand Rapids YMCA

Students may feel as though they spend their “whole life” in school, but they actually have much more time away from school. In one year, students spend about 1,118 hours in school – and 7,642 hours out of school. That makes their choice of activities during out-of-school time (OST) a key factor in their success in school – and in life. Dozens of organizations, including the Y, offer Itasca area families a wide range of options.

By Christina Brown for IAISS

Every day after school more than two dozen kids ages 6 to 13 drop in at the Deer River Boys and Girls Club.

They work on homework, hang out with their friends, and learn some life skills along the way.

“There are so many families where both parents or guardians have to work,” said Chad Evans, Out of School Time Program Coordinator and Unit Director of the Boys and Girls Club. “This is a safe place for their kids to be.”

The program, open to all Deer River area youth, costs just $5 a year. For those who participate, the support offered is priceless.

Supporting children inside and outside of school is one of the goals of the Pathway to Student Success. The idea is based on research by Deborah Vandell that shows children who have expanded learning opportunities at school, in the community, and at home are more likely to gain the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary for life in the 21st century.

Karen Kingsley of Youthprise, a statewide organization that champions learning beyond the classroom agrees. “We know that kids in out of school time activities make better choices about their behavior and tend to be healthier,” said Kingsley.

Evans sees the difference — test scores and social interactions have improved.

“Teachers tell me that because we support reading outside of school and homework time, it’s a huge help for them,” said Evans. “These kids could be sitting at home playing video games or getting into trouble. It is so much better for kids to have a caring adult who can help and support and encourage them.”

Making connections between the community and kids is also the focus of Bridges Kinship Mentoring.

The non-profit has five mentoring programs that serve 300 children in Itasca County.

One of its most popular is community-based mentoring. Adult volunteers spend a minimum of 6 hours a month with a child.  How time is spent is often determined by the child’s interests and could include anything from shooting hoops at the Y to going fishing.

“We’re about building relationships, and positive experiences,” said Lori Kangas-Olson, program coordinator for Bridges Kinship Mentoring.  “The more positive experiences a child can have, the more they connect their learning to those experiences.”

Kathy Dodge, recently retired director of the Itasca Orchestra and Strings program, and former educator, said the greatest determiner of success isn’t always GPA.

She said after-school activities like the Itasca Orchestra and Strings program allow kids to develop leadership skills and talents that might not be acknowledged grade-wise, but can be beneficial to their future success.

“Quite often parents will have a kid that just isn’t having a good time in school,” said Dodge. “But then that child will pick up a violin or a viola and start having some success. It builds confidence.

“We’re fortunate to have a huge selection of opportunities for youth in Itasca County – some free, some not,” said Dodge. “It becomes a matter of figuring out how to define a child’s interests and how to nurture them.”

But even with all of the choices, there are still challenges.

“We have a lot of lower income families in Itasca County, and for those kids, some out of school programs are not as accessible,” said Dodge.  “And for those who live in rural areas, transportation can be a big problem. Parents are busy, too, so just finding programming that fits the schedule can be tough. Having high quality programming that is accessible is very important.”

Dodge said the Pathway to Student Success lays an excellent groundwork for establishing quality and accessible programming outside of school.

“When you look at the goals of the Pathway, they include much of the same things that make a good program,” Dodge said. “When students feel accepted, they’re learning a skill, improving on academic skills, and they feel valued, safe and welcomed, they are able to form meaningful connections with students and adults. We need to be dedicated to this effort outside of school.”