Entering its 16th year at Linden middle school, after-school program sees renewal from state

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LINDEN — After-school programs allow students to continue learning, build larger social circles, attain help through tutoring and enjoy extracurricular activities. After-school programs add an extra component to the school day, enabling students to have fun while adopting alternative learning strategies. Recently, the New Jersey Department of Education renewed its grant for a successful after-school program at Linden’s Joseph E. Soehl Middle School.

The 21st Century Community Learning Center, entering its 16th year at Soehl, offers tutoring, enrichment programs, recreation and more, each weekday from 3 to 6 p.m.
The well-regarded program receives a great deal of support.

“The original grant application was geared towards this particular school based on student need,” Soehl Principal Isabella Scocozza said on Sept. 11. “I’ve written 15 of the 16 grant applications for the Linden Public School District. I also serve as the program director of the 21st Century Community Learning Center throughout the entire duration of the grant award.

“The purpose of the 21st CCLC program is to supplement the education of students who attend schools eligible for Title 1, schoolwide programs or schools where a minimum of 30 percent of students have socioeconomic needs,” she continued. “The 21st Century program provides participating students with academic enrichment opportunities that complement the regular school day. The vision for the 21st CCLC program is to develop high-quality out-of-school-time programs throughout the community that provide services not just to the child but to the entire family. The 21st Century will continue to enhance the impact on student achievement and career and college readiness.

“Currently, New Jersey has 63 grantees throughout the state that include local education agencies, nonprofit, for-profit, community-based and faith-based organizations, operating solely or in partnership with other agencies,” she added.

According to a media release from the school district, the state grant is awarded for five-year terms but must be renewed each year. This is the second year of the current term.

“The Linden Public School District’s 21st Century Community Learning Center provides sixth- through eighth-grade students with an educational and enrichment program after the regular school day has ended,” Scocozza said. “The program will provide a safe and nurturing environment for participants to spend their after-school hours when parents or guardians may not be at home. The 21st Century target enrollment will be to service 151 students to attend 30 days or more for each program year, although each year our student attendance usually doubles that required amount, based on interest and need.

“The Linden Public School District has been very fortunate to have received the NJDOE 21st Century Community Learning Center grant award on four separate occasions, to total currently 16 years of innovative after-school programming. The after-school program provides an hourly homework tutorial class coordinated by certified academic teachers and highly qualified paraprofessionals,” she continued. “The second component of the program consists of a daily rotating enrichment class in disciplines such as language arts, math, STEM, technology, physical education and character education. The third component of the program consists of recreation classes.”

It is unusual for a program to receive the grant four times.

“The grant application needs to be written and submitted to the NJDOE each school year, either on a competitive or continuation basis,” Scocozza said. “The NJDOE reviews all program data to ensure compliance in order to continue with the grant. The program director has provided countless professional development and training to other grantees within the state.

“The Linden 21st Century Community Learning Center has hired an outside evaluation consultant to analyze qualitative and quantitative after-school program data,” Scocozza continued. “The evaluation consultant interviews staff, students, parents and stakeholders; completes program walk-throughs; reviews all grant documentation; develops survey instruments; and assists with on-site monitoring visits. The evaluator also collaborates with the program director to ensure that all grant goals and objectives are being successfully met.

“The Linden Public District has successfully proved compliance every year for each NJDOE monitoring audit. Various school data are analyzed in order to determine program effectiveness, such as student grades, state assessment scores, progress reports, attendance and conduct, among others. Each year, the after-school program has successfully increased student achievement in comparison to students not registered for related services,” she added.

Loni Ladoo, a seventh-grade teacher at Soehl Middle School who has worked in the 21st CCLC after-school program for many years, shared the sentiment.

“The program is highly successful because it addresses all students’ needs, including academic and social-emotional,” Ladoo said on Sept. 12. “Students in this program also have the opportunity to explore places and experience new things that they may not (otherwise) have the opportunity to for various reasons.”

The grant funds support various components of the program.

“The 2020-2021 grant award is for a total of $425,000,” Scocozza said. “The money is allocated for instructional salaries, such as teachers and paraprofessionals; noninstructional salaries, such as director, site coordinator, secretary; educational supplies; technology and equipment; curricula; STEM educational kits; field trip admission fees; evaluation services assemblies; transportation; etc. The 21st Century Community Learning Center grant is awarded through the New Jersey Department of Education and is federally funded.”

According to Scocozza, the program’s success stems from the multitude of activities offered.

“The 21st CCLC Program offers a wide variety of activities, such as homework assistance, enrichment classes, recreational courses, counseling, mentoring, class trips, parenting workshops, community service, family nights, daily meal program,” Scocozza said. “Students select from a variety of program offerings each day. A Student Advisory Council is created to promote student leadership and to generate feedback regarding program ideas and activities.

“A Summer STEM Academy is coordinated during the month of July for the benefit of all students,” she continued. “A variety of parenting workshops and family nights are scheduled on a monthly basis. Numerous family class trips are coordinated on the weekends in order to allow additional parents to attend. Monthly community service activities are planned, such as the Gently Used Coat Drive, FOLAS Animal Shelter Drive, Hat Not Hate and the Pennies for Patients Drive.

The program also installed the city’s first two Little Free Libraries to promote literacy in the community.

“The theme of the Linden 21st Century after-school program is STEM,” Scocozza said. “STEM provides practical, engaging instructional strategies that focus on academic collaboration, hands-on approaches, creativity and problem-solving. The Linden 21st Century utilizes the following thematic unit-based curricula for the academic enrichment component: LearnDoEarn, VEX Robotics, Ozobot, Sphero SPRK, Hour of Code, Design Squad, Explore It! Design It!, after-school science project, Lego robotics, etc.”

The coronavirus pandemic has changed nearly everything, including 21st CCLC.

“The 21st Century after-school program transitioned into a virtual program due to COVID,” Scocozza said. “Students participated in virtual enrichment, recreation and homework-assistance activities through the Webex online platform. A Summer STEM Virtual Academy was held on a virtual basis during the month of July 2020 in coordination with the Liberty Science Center. Currently, the 21st Century after-school program will start the 2020-2021 school on a virtual basis through Webex. Once the Linden Public School District transitions to the hybrid model, the after-school program will have an opportunity to coordinate on-site activities.”

In Scocozza’s opinion, the after-school program is an asset to the school.

“I am so grateful that the NJDOE has approved the Linden 21st CCLC grant application for the upcoming school year,” Scocozza said. “More than one-third of the entire school participates in the after-school program, and it provides a seamless transition to the day school. It provides a safe and nurturing environment for our students after the regular school day has ended. It provides both students and their families an opportunity to participate in numerous course offerings, activities and parental engagement throughout the school year.

“I have seen firsthand the positive impact that the 21st Century program has made on both the students and families at Soehl Middle School,” she continued. “We are going to continue with our efforts by collaborating with the community and stakeholders, along with meeting the growing needs of our students and parents.”

Ladoo is equally excited about the renewal.

“With COVID changing our lives, this program gives students hope, as well as an outlet for additional instructional and counseling opportunities,” Ladoo said.

Photos Courtesy of Gary Miller