After-school enrichment program gives flexibility to busy parents

St. Mary Catholic School System expands program options

NEENAH — The enrichment program at St. Margaret Mary Catholic School has been part of their curriculum for the past 10 years. Today, hundreds of students throughout the St. Mary Catholic School System in Neenah and Menasha benefit from it every year.

Originally the enrichment program was part of the daily school curriculum, explained St. Margaret Mary principal Eleanor Healy. Each year the teachers focused on a different topic such as math, reading or science. “What we found was we were doing the enrichment program during the school days and the teachers were trying to get their regular work in and their enrichment.”

Kindergarten and first grade students from St. Margaret Mary Elementary in Neenah observe one of the VEX IQ robots built by SMM elementary students. VEX IQ is one of the STEM classes offered through the SMCS School Enrichment Program. (Special to The Compass)

The administration started to consider making this into an after-school program at the request of one of their parents, Christine Cedergren. When her oldest son was in grade school she found it difficult to get him to karate at dinnertime and keep the younger two boys happy and occupied at that time of day. She asked if the school could offer karate classes during the school day.

“Mrs. Healy said no, but that we could do it after school,” said Cedergren. “Then it got so popular we started to explore other options that would be helpful to our families.”

The mission was to offer classes and opportunities to families at a lower cost than they can find in the community. It would provide evening family time, especially for working parents. “They don’t have to run around after they pick their kids up from after-school care and take them to dance and everything else. They can go home and have dinner as a family and enjoy the evening together,” said Cedergren.

As an active parent volunteer, Cedergren got the after-school program up and running and spent many hours both administrating the program and helping with various classes. “We reached the point where she was putting in an awful lot of time into this and we said, ‘You need to get paid for this,’” said Healy.

Cedergren now works for the school system as the director of the St. Mary Catholic School System Enrichment Program.

Three years ago, the program was expanded to include all three SMCS grade school campuses. The following year it was expanded again to include the preschool classes. Some families have their children in after-school care or the early childhood extended day program in conjunction with the enrichment program after school. Most of the classes end at 5 p.m.

Classes in the enrichment program include art, clay animation studio, Club Invention (STEM – Science Technology Engineering Math), Dance with Valley Academy of the Arts, Junior FIRST Lego League and FIRST Lego League, Math Club, Move to the Groove Hip Hop, Karate, PopSingsation (show choir), Preschool KiddyKeys (piano lessons), KidStage (theater), ukulele lessons, VEX IQ Robotics and yoga.

St. Mary Catholic Middle School was added to the program this year and those students participate in the Zephyr track program, karate and KidsStage.

Classes are taught by a combination of paid instructors and volunteers, including staff from the school system and parents. “A lot of the teachers who teach Club Invention bring those ideas into the classroom so they’re continuing the education,” noted Healy.

Cedergren researches new ideas for expanding the curriculum and looks for input from parents on things they’d like to see offered for their children. She’s in charge of finding and hiring the instructors. Classes range in length from 30 minutes for preschool options to 90 minutes for the STEM offerings.

“It takes a lot of organizing,” noted Cedergren. The most popular classes they have found are the STEM classes, hip hop and the clay animation.

Enrichment doesn’t have to stop in the summer. Now SMCS offers Camp Invention for a week in the summer. This year it will be held at the middle school campus, said Cedergren, who is camp director.

Healy said parents and children love the enrichment program. “It’s been very, very successful.” STEM enrichment in particular will be valuable to students as they enter the workforce. “Employers are looking for people who are prepared in technology and have some engineering skills and especially math,” said Healy. “That’s where we’re headed. Manufacturing isn’t the manufacturing it was 20 years ago. Manufacturing is now all computer-regulated today. Even in medicine they’ve gone into so much computerized programs. That’s where society is moving so we need to educate kids.”