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It’s 5 p.m., yet the classrooms of Buffalo’s School 54 still bustle with activity.

A kindergarten teacher prompts her students to think of the biggest and fastest animals they know before reading a story during a Language Arts lesson.

Next door, a math teacher helps young pupils with counting, asking them to identify the group of objects that represents a particular number.

Most of School 54’s students left hours ago, but these 200 stay later and get extra help with the skills they need to be successful in the classroom.

And soon, through a partnership with Say Yes Buffalo and the YMCA, they will spend part of the time in soccer, Zumba and art classes, activities to which they might not otherwise have access.

School 54, at 2358 Main St., is one of eight that will soon expand its after-school offerings through the partnership with Say Yes. Fifteen other city schools – mostly those that have struggled to meet the state’s academic standards – offer similar programs through other partnerships with community organizations.

Many educators and experts say after-school programs are essential to improving performance in high-needs districts such as Buffalo, and the push to expand the offerings underscores a state and national effort to get students to spend more time in class.

Yet despite research showing that such programs lead to academic gains, progress in the effort to make programs like the one at School 54 the norm in the district has been slow. Programs have varied across the district, with options sometimes changing from year to year. Most have been limited in the amount of time and number of students they serve.

Even after Say Yes came forward with an ambitious plan to offer after-school programs in 28 schools, five days a week for two hours a day starting last October, questions about how the programs would be paid for stalled their implementation.

Leaders of Say Yes and the school district have figured out how to pay for the programs, which will start next week, for the remainder of the school year, but their next hurdle is ahead: an estimated $14 million to continue them next year.

At stake is the education of thousands of Buffalo schoolchildren who could benefit from the extra time learning.

“We need to get the right people at the table and get the right information so our parents in this district are not left in the dark,” said Diane L. Rowe, chief professional officer for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Buffalo, one of the after-school partners.

“I know this is what’s good for our students. If the money isn’t there, we need to have an honest conversation as a community about what else we can be doing for them.”

The After School Corporation, or TASC, which for two decades has worked with the New York City schools to develop after-school programs, released a report showing that by the time they reach sixth grade, middle-class children typically have spent 6,000 more hours learning than children born in poverty. About half of that difference is attributed to poor kids lacking access to extracurricular activities.

Some urban school districts, including Buffalo, also have shorter school days than in the suburbs.

National pilot program

To try to bridge that learning gap, New York is one of five states participating in a national pilot program to lengthen the school day, and the U.S. Department of Education is working in collaboration with the Ford Foundation and the National Center on Time and Learning to accomplish that goal. Students at some schools in Rochester, which was chosen to launch the program, will spend an extra 300 hours in the classroom this school year.

Last week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced $720,000 in state funds to expand after-school programs in high-needs school districts. In Buffalo, just 11.5 percent of students met state standards in reading; only 9.6 percent were deemed proficient in math.

“The effort really is to keep kids engaged and make the whole school day more engaging for students,” said Lucy N. Friedman, president of TASC. “I hear more and more from principals and superintendents that they cannot do it alone.”

Along with the academic benefit, after-school programs also offer a safe place for students who might otherwise spend time after class in neighborhoods where they are exposed to crime, drugs and violence. Programs such as the ones by the Boys & Girls Clubs offer students mentors who keep up with their schoolwork and guide them in making good life choices.

“The basic framework of all of our programs is we provide support to children to build on what’s happening during the school day,” said Yamilette Williams, the district’s chief of curriculum, assessment and instruction. “We try to individualize that to the groups of students who sign up for the programs.”

Say Yes had wanted to start the after-school programs last fall, but it didn’t happen, and by December, it was unclear how they would be paid for.

David Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo, has said he was under the impression the district would come up with the $14 million to pay for the programs, but district officials say they were clear about their budget constraints throughout the planning process. Say Yes originally had not agreed to contribute any money to the program, but Rust said the organization will now help subsidize costs if necessary.

Williams acknowledged that Buffalo was counting on a state grant, but the program developed with Say Yes did not qualify. The grant was intended to pay for districts to lengthen their school day for all students, not add extra time at the end of the day for optional programs like the ones being developed in Buffalo.

Although the original Say Yes plan would have served about 9,300 students, the new scaled-back version will reach, at most, 5,665.

‘Collaboration’ at forefront

Still, school and Say Yes leaders hope that even the scaled-back program will give students much-needed extra time to work on academics and participate in enrichment activities.

Those programs are being modeled after one at School 43, which for more than a decade has offered its program with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Buffalo. The program is one of nine funded through the federal 21st Century Community Learning Center grant.

Leaders of the Boys & Girls Clubs have worked with the school to develop a program that builds on what students are learning during the school day. A liaison reports to the school at 11 a.m. or earlier each day and shares information about students with the principal and teachers so all can work together to meet the students’ academic, social and emotional needs.

“Collaboration has always been at the forefront of our mission, especially at the schools,” Rowe said.

In teacher Patricia E. Kopper’s classroom, that means having extra time to work with the students she has during the regular school day. Students spend the first hour of the after-school program on homework and academics, allowing Kopper to pull individual students or groups who may need help with a specific skill. “It give us a chance to give them more individualized attention we can’t always give during the school day,” Kopper said.

During the second hour, students rotate through different activities that focus on health and wellness, fitness, leadership and how to deal with issues in their communities, such as drugs and violence.

The Boys & Girls Clubs monitor students’ report cards and conduct surveys each year to try to measure the program’s success. Ultimately, it would like access to more student data, such as test scores and attendance records, to be able to compare the students’ results with those who do not participate in the program.

While that data is important, Principal Maria Miller gauges the program’s success by other means.

“Some results can’t be measured,” she said. “This school is the lifeblood of the community. We do what we can to support the students and their families. When you extend the school day, that extends into the community.”

email: tlankes@buffnews.com