Lights On Afterschool! A Year in Review

Lights On Afterschool! Muskegon County: A Year in Review

By Dave Sipka, Board Member, United Way of the Lakeshore

Following an educational summit in 2004, United Way of the Lakeshore adopted a focus on early childhood development and established goals to make after-school programming available to every child in Muskegon County. Currently, there are six after-school sites with programs through Lights On Afterschool! Muskegon County (LOAS). Though others are available through the state-administered, federally-funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers, most are subsidized by the local public school system where administrators indicated that the support from the United Way of the Lakeshore is necessary to sustain the local program.

In reviewing the six LOAS programs, our panel of reviewers—besides myself were Muskegon County Commissioner Ken Mahoney whose district includes Montague and Whitehall schools; former school principal Wendy Sipka; and K.P. Pelleran, public policy committee member of the Michigan After-School Partnership, and director of planning, advocacy & grants, United Way of the Lakeshore—found the sites to be refreshingly organized with a high ratio of qualified staff to students, enriching activities for students, tutors for reading and homework, nutritious snacks, and happy student participants.

Here’s what we learned at the various LOAS sites.

Cardinal Elementary, Orchard View Schools, in Muskegon Township:  Students have had increased success in reading and math.  Through collaboration with Cardinal Elementary teachers, afterschool coordinators were able to specifically instruct tutors where to work on target areas with students.  Students who attend Lights On Afterschool! Muskegon County had 100% of their assignments turned in, which is a huge success. One parent said, “I appreciate the staff at afterschool so much.  I have no worries about whether my daughter will have homework done or having a good time.  They provide awesome activities and keep the kids active.”
Pathfinders in Muskegon Heights has three locations with 70 registered participants and an average attendance of 41 where each night students get a hot meal along with tutoring, and enrichment programs. Throughout the school year, afterschool coordinators and tutors worked to establish positive affirmations and positive mindset in all youth, develop regular study and reading habits, and improved reading scores. It was rewarding to see the number of enriching activities occurring simultaneously, along with the high ratio of adults to students. A 10th grade student reported, “I presented my foreign language project to Ms. Shauna and Ms. Denise at Pathfinders before I presented it to my French class, and they assured me I was ready to present at school and I got an “A.”   

White Lake Area Community Education had two programs. One at Oerhli Elementary in Montague and the other at Ealy Elementary in Whitehall.
The programs were quite similar though Oerhli Elementary had a larger attendance and therefore more adult staff. At both sites, each child’s progress is tracked by Lights On Afterschool! Muskegon County staff with the use of monthly progress reports.  If children require additional support in a specific academic area, teaching staff have the opportunity to communicate that need with Lights On Afterschool! Muskegon County staff through the use of this report.  In addition, children are provided time to focus on reading further advancing their skill. The grandmother of two participants shared, “With all of the things that have happened this year, I am grateful to know that my granddaughters are safe and happy at an after school program.”  

Lights On Afterschool! Muskegon County is a public – private partnership with a mission to provide high-quality, community-enriched, fun, safe havens, improve academic student achievement, and help working families. In the long run, children and youth in these high-quality settings demonstrate an increase in developmental assets including positive youth development and academic achievement, and a decrease in high risk behaviors.  From the review panel’s perspective, our Lights On Afterschool! programs are meeting if not exceeding the intended goals. This is important to help ensure students have opportunities to exceed in school and careers as they continue to march forward academically.  

According to the National Center for Juvenile Justice, the highest crime rates involving teens occurs between the hours of 3:00 – 6:00 p.m., after the school bell rings and before parents get home from work.  Other data shows that if kids can read by the 4th grade, they are then able to read to learn throughout their school years. Therefore, providing a well-supervised, high-quality, academically enriched environment for students with an emphasis on reading and math proficiency gives us a two-fer. It’s something that not only advances children and youth in school and careers, it can save valuable taxpayer dollars in the long run when kids grow into contributors in society, rather than taking on a life of crime. In the nonprofit arena, we’re thrilled when programs that we support can give a solid return on the investment. Today, we need that investment and so do the children and youth.

Since the 2004 educational summit, the United Way of the Lakeshore has taken on a new data-driven transformation in its community impact agenda and has set a bold goal of seeing 10,000 more working families meet their basic needs by 2025. Many of these families are considered part of the Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) families. Providing high-quality out-of-school-time programs and access to affordable child care is in alignment with the United Way’s new bold goal to assist ALICE families. Through years of focus group meetings, and a recent series of Community Conversations held in November 2015 through March 2016, and through a brainstorming series at the United Way of the Lakeshore’s January 2016 leadership summit, access to high-quality affordable child care – including after-school programs – was identified by working families as a primary area of concern and high need.

For a dozen years, Lights On Afterschool! Muskegon County has supported programs that focus on academics, arts and athletics.  Activities have included tutoring, mentoring, physical recreation such as gym time and organized sports, computers and technology, expulsion diversion programs, social activities and clubs, crafts, youth leadership and volunteerism. These programs, coupled with ensuring that kids get a solid educational foundation through high-quality preschool programs and good schools, have made a difference where the data shows that more kids are increasing their literacy proficiency by 4th grade, and, later on others are graduating on schedule.  Now is the time to increase our investment in these worthwhile programs.

Demand for afterschool programs in Muskegon County far exceeds supply. There are not enough afterschool programs for those who want to attend. Therefore, Lights On Afterschool! Muskegon County will continue to seek support of grants through Alcoa Foundation, the Community Foundation for Muskegon County and a match by the United Way, as well as other granting sources.

The goals for future programming are to continue to increase the opportunities provided our children and youth through high-quality afterschool programs. To that end, we gladly share the results of these programs to increase the level of community awareness and knowledge about Lights On Afterschool! Muskegon County—especially the benefit to ALICE families as we help to provide academically enriched, well-supervised, safe havens for our most vulnerable citizens, our children.  

See picture from the panel's visit here.

In addition to being a board member at the United Way of the Lakeshore, Dave Sipka is a retired educator and administrator steeped in Muskegon County where he retired after a distinguished career from his last post serving as Superintendent of the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District.