School programs

ESSER funds enrich after-school programs in Fall River, New Bedford area

Jeffrey D. Wagner

WESTPORT — Kids of this generation could see a student from Westport become a professional athlete or a student from Fairhaven become a famous entertainer.

Irony? It could be one of the by-products of COVID-19.

Thanks to Early Relief Fund for Elementary and Secondary Schoolslocal school districts provide athletic and enrichment programs for students at no cost to local communities or parents.

Mike Fernandes, the coordinator of Westport Start ‘Em Young Programsaid there was a buzz in the corridors of Westport schools.

Fernandes said that in the fall, the district offered soccer and cross country that 80 students participated in.

The program has completed a designer club and starting this month offers volleyball; a success camp, helping children manage their time, organize and do their homework; a 3D modeling program, as well as a video game design program.

Westport also offered plays across the Gamm Theater.

Develop athletic and artistic skills

Fernandes brother Kyle Fernandes was drafted by the Boston Red Sox and played baseball professionally for the New Bedford Bay Sox. Fernandes has a friend, Allen Levreault, who pitched professionally for the Florida Marlins and has a World Series ring.

Fernandes said “lighting a fire” under these children early on could help them develop skills in sports and the arts – opportunities that haven’t been as available in recent years thanks to COVID-19.

“Social-emotional learning has been difficult for children in the younger grades to participate in many other activities than regular school activities,” Fernandes said. “School community and school spirit — it’s so integral to children’s success in school. Many memories are of things that happen outside of the classroom.

Pupil Thomas Walker plays volleyball as part of the after school program at Westport Primary School.

Similar things are happening at Fairhaven and Acushnet schools.

“We offer after-school programming in our elementary school that includes reading and math intervention, as well as a select club activity for students on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons,” said Angela Ruggeri, program director, teaching and assessment in Acushnet schools. “Clubs such as Cardio Drums, Paint, French, Spanish, Ukulele and many more. We provide free snacks. It has been a big hit with our students, with more than of 200 students.

Ruggeri said more club sessions will be offered this spring.

Mark Balestracci, assistant superintendent of schools, said faculty members interested in art, music and STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) have been invited to lead some of these clubs.

The school district offered a STEM club, an a cappella club, as well as visual arts activities such as art exploration and drawing.

Partnerships with local businesses, organizations

Fairhaven has involved the local business and arts communities in its programs.

For the drawing, Fairhaven partnered with Paint by Splash in New Bedford, allowing local artists to visit and work with students.

The district has also partnered with Buttonwood Park Zoo on a mobile zoo program and the Lloyd Center in Dartmouth to offer a habitats and species program.

“It started small in our schools and blossomed to grow in communities,” Balestracci said.

The district has also partnered with local Southern Massachusetts and Rhode Island Mad Science for STEM programming, Balestracci said.

Fairhaven also involved older students, attracting 25 volunteer high school mentors to help with extracurricular activities.

The district also now offers a creative writing course, where students must create a final product.

Filling learning gaps

Districts such as Somerset, Freetown and Dartmouth have used ESSER funds to help close learning gaps.

“We are currently using ESSER funding to organize before and after school tutoring programmes. We will also be using these funds to run acceleration academies this summer, just like we did last summer,” says Somerset Superintendent Jeffrey Schoonover.

James Kiely, Dartmouth’s assistant superintendent of operations and finance, said vacation weeks and summer programs have been offered at Dartmouth using ESSER funds.

“The academies focused on a specific content area and students who attended the academies received the equivalent of approximately one additional month of learning in one week,” he said. “Mathematics Academy and ELA grade-level teachers have developed hands-on, collaborative, and engaging learning experiences that focus on grade-appropriate foundational skills and student engagement with complex texts aligned with a limited number of grade level standards.”

Kiely said about 200 students have participated in these programs.