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Murray Journal

Hillcrest Junior High students connect with teachers, peers through after-school program

Nov 01, 2022 08:23PM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Hillcrest Junior High ninth-grader Alex Bohorquez is writing a fiction story and learning how to solve different math problems instead of hanging out at home, dabbling in art or gearing up for snowboarding season.

“We’re going to write a story that we may try to publish, and it will be a full story instead of just learning the components like we normally do in class,” he said. “I’m also in the Math Olympiad. I’m learning a lot of different math kind of questions and concepts that they don't really teach you normally in school curriculum, so this has been good.”

Bohorquez is one of dozens of students who have found an interest ranging from bicycling to Dungeons & Dragons at Hillcrest Junior High’s after-school program. 

This year, Hillcrest began offering its after-school program, along with Horizon and Parkside elementary schools, after receiving funding in part by the 21st Century Community Learning Center grant as well as funds from each school’s Teacher Student Success Act, said Missy Hamilton, director of elementary teaching and learning.

The Hillcrest program is supported by the administration.

Teacher Morgan Lami said she and colleague Gabriel Smith had been wanting to offer a Dungeons & Dragons club for years, but in the past, they weren’t given the nod from administration. Under the new administrators, Principal Claustina Reynolds, Assistant Principal Sam Salinas and Intern/Assistant Principal Lia Smith, they were encouraged to have it be part of the after-school program.

Lami, oversees the program, with Smith and other teachers leading break-out sessions.

When students arrive, they have a school-provided snack and spend an hour working on their homework, she said.

“That's part of the grant,” Lami said. “Our funding is based on them doing something academic. So, we start with homework to make sure that they're getting the help they need. The kids come to do it and we have English, math and social studies teachers here to answer questions and help.”

For the second hour, students can choose from the different activities offered each day before being given a sack dinner from the Utah Food Bank.

“Dungeons & Dragons is our most popular, but there’s chess, writing workshop, Math Olympiad, stage crew, basketball in open gym, arts and crafts and they do anything from painting pet rocks to today, doing manicures. We started a biking group on Mondays, the more proficient bikers go out and bike, and on Thursdays, one of our math teachers teaches kids how to ride a bike. We have a lot of kids who have never ridden a bike. I saw a video of one of the kids riding a bike for the first time and he was beside himself, just so happy,” she said, adding that 10 bikes were donated to the school’s program.

Lami said STEM activities will be introduced into the after-school programming as well as badminton, service projects, possibly e-games and a cookie per month program.

There are teachers who are offering to be part of the program.

“A lot of us kind of jumped at the opportunity to be able to connect with kids in a different non-academic way and this worked out perfectly,” said Lami, who has taught English and French for five years. “Kids are more likely to learn from someone who they trust and when you interact with them in a different way, you're able to build that trust and relationship. We can ask them, ‘How's your character you’re building right now?’ or ‘How is your chess strategy going?’ and kids realize their teacher knows them and their teacher sees them. They feel safe, and when they feel safe, they’re more likely to listen to you and know we care about them.”

Smith said that for some students, activities like Dungeons & Dragons, a fantasy tabletop role-playing game, provides a needed opportunity.

“We've provided the research, these kids need to learn how to socialize, they need to learn how to do teamwork, they know how to compete and obviously they're competing by killing goblins and things,” he said. “These kids don't play football, basketball or do sports, so they need a team where they can work together and have the opportunity to have those learning factors.”

Lami said students appreciate the chance to “do the fun part” as well as get their homework done before going home.

“I think a lot of these students if they weren't in here in the after-school program, they would be just right outside waiting for parents to come get them or leaving school campus and hanging out. It's nice because it works out that they can just hang out here, and they stay because they want to,” she said.

Teacher Jen Allred-Salvesen offered “a nice pampering thing, kind of self-care” with manicures.

“I think the after-school program is creating a safe place where they can meet together and hang out and get to do experiences like this with friends,” she said. “This is a healthy way of being able to grow and learn and be with each other in positive ways. It builds community in our school. I teach math, but by doing this after-school program, I get to see so many more kids and they meet me, another person in our building that they recognize, and they get to learn we all have different things we do outside of our classroom in a non-formal way.”

Bohorquez said that he’s glad the program began.

“I like hanging out with teachers in a less formal way, where it’s not about needing to get something done, but more of you’re here, so it’s more of a now thing,” he said. “It’s fun to see those teachers and that personality and the same thing with friends that I only see at school. Now we can choose to come here, learn something fun and hang out.”