FernLeaf teachers are famous for their commitment to creating rich learning environments in their classrooms. Watching the teachers live out the school's mission, and their abilities to help all students - regardless of grade level - dig deep into the subject matter, encouraging curiosity and creative wonder, is astonishing. Learning, however, doesn't stop at the end of the school day. Neither does the school's mission "to engage the unique passions and aptitudes of our school community so that in addition to achieving academic fluency, students become thoughtful, compassionate and engaged."
To both meet the needs and take advantage of the opportunities of a growing school community, the teachers and staff made a concerted effort during the '21-'22 school year to expand the after school programming.
Prior to the pandemic, FernLeaf had a number of meaningful options for students after school, including a strings program that taught budding musicians the basics of violin, cello, viola, or, of course, ukulele. The school also had athletic teams that played flag-football and soccer in a league made up of other charter and private schools.
Even during remote learning, the FernLeaf teachers continued to offer after school programs, albeit in a different way. Students (and parents who may have been looking over their students' shoulders) could learn to draw, watercolor, play piano or code via lessons offered virtually.
"Engaging students virtually is no small task," Molly Luplow said, remembering that season in the school's history, "and our after school virtual instructors nailed it."
Nevertheless, returning to school full-time in 2021 opened up a world of possibilities not available in remote learning. A soccer ball, after all, is difficult to pass and shoot over Google Meet, and who wants to go rock climbing or mountain biking on a computer screen? Functionally, Molly said, the school also wanted to help families avoid the hustle and grind common in modern American parenting.
"We believe that there is a benefit in providing these programs at school to save parents the trouble of driving all over town to get their children to after school programs."
Building on the performing arts curriculum created by Eric Scheider, the visual arts courses offered by Mary Rutkowski and the dedicated athletic coaching and direction from Alissa Arrington, the school added an adventure sports program coordinated by Will Hinchliffe. Additionally, the school also offered STEM- and gaming-oriented programs as well as Odyssey of the Mind led by Luke Shofestall, Spanish language classes taught by Hannah Charbel, and parent-led afterschool classics like Science Olympiad. It was growth that was both natural and impressive.
Following the year of expanded learning outside of the formal classroom, FernLeaf staffers engaged in some interesting reflection about their own unique interests and aptitudes.
Scott McDonald, the school's CFO, said he would put down his spreadsheets and analytics long enough to join the school's competitive ultimate frisbee team. Blending elements of soccer and American football, the sport is famous for long frisbee throws, diving catches and bandanas. "I love the mix of cardio, physicality and dirt," Scott said.
While competitive athletics, and many of the adventure sports programs, like white water rafting, rock climbing and mountain biking, as well as the STEM programs and the academic teams, were available only to upper grade students, most of the visual and performing arts programs and a number of athletic clubs were intentionally made for all ages. Just like the school day when it's common to find 7th graders working closely with 2nd graders on a project, the mixed ages in the after school program made for learning that was both deep and wide.
Joe Hartles, the school's behavior support specialist, experienced that last year as both a staff member and parent. Helping Alissa lead a disc golf club for all ages, Joe had an opportunity to see what it means for students, including his son, learn how to compete without losing sight of the relationships and the processes that matter, while also exploring new passions and interests.
"Ridge really enjoyed competing against older students and felt empowered each time he finished practice for the evening," Joe said of his 2nd-grader. "A highlight was seeing all the students get to spend time with a local professional disc golfer who ran a clinic."
If given a choice of her own, teacher Sarah Bachelor said she would stay off the sports field and dig deep into the Spanish language classes. "I love learning about different cultures to make our big world feel a little bit smaller," she said. "Knowing that you can communicate with a larger circle of people is an amazing accomplishment."
Nicole Rule, the communications, marketing and events coordinator, said she would set down her phone and computer and pick up a compass. "I would have loved to have taken orienteering," she said. "I remember spending road trips staring at an atlas. Navigating by a map and racing with a team sounds like my idea of fun."
When asked about his own interests, Eric Scheider, operating at his typical amazing pace of 900 thoughts per minute, somehow circled through almost every option on the schedule. "If we're talking about after school classes," he said, "I think I'd want to be on the soccer team, if that counts, or mountain biking. I would also love to be involved in doing many of the kindergarten projects I've been seeing this year. But, ultimately, music classes are my favorite, which is why I guess I've ended up as a music teacher."
It is precisely the breadth and depth of interests held by the school's staff and teachers that makes the after school program special. Unique passions and aptitudes are exactly that - unique to each student. A school, and its after school programming, that only addresses one or two interests at the expense of others can not meet the diverse needs of its community, both within the school and beyond it.
"A holistic educational program includes a wide variety of experiences for students and sometimes you can't cram all of those into the school day," Molly Luplow said.
Thankfully, the after school programming for the '22-'23 academic year is just as rich and diverse and exciting as last year's. Without a doubt, students will have an opportunity to explore their own interests and passions no matter what they are. Don't be surprised if some of the FernLeaf teachers and staff are there learning and playing right alongside.