Grants expand after-school programs in Portland, Biddeford public schools

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PORTLAND — Grants of more than $2 million will be used to open new after-school programs for students in Portland and Biddeford.

LearningWorks received two Maine Department of Education 21st Century Learning Center grants totaling $2.2 million to expand and start the public-school programs. The grants will be used for programs expected to reach more than 1,400 students over five years.

In Portland, the grants will expand after-school programs to Ocean Avenue and Presumpscot elementary schools. LearningWorks currently runs after-school programs at East End and Reiche elementary schools.

Amy Pichette, director of after-school programming for LearningWorks, said 70 students will be enrolled in the new Ocean Avenue program, while 50 students will be involved at Presumpscot. Forty students are enrolled at each of the two existing Portland programs, with daily attendance averaging between 33 and 35 students at each school.

In Biddeford, a combined 120 students are expected to enroll in programs at the intermediate and primary schools.

The new programs will start with a four-week summer program in July. After-school programs will begin in September.

The programs will primarily serve low-income students, many of whom are English language learners, Pichette said. The program focuses on science, technology, engineering and math because few Maine students, and even fewer low-income students, pursue careers in STEM fields.

“This is a great day for hundreds of elementary students in Biddeford and Portland. Research is clear that extending the learning day is crucial for students who are falling behind,” LearningWorks CEO Ethan Strimling said in a press release announcing the grants.

LearningWorks and school officials say the after-school programs have successfully helped elementary school students improve their academic performance. During the past two years, 88 percent of students in the LearningWorks summer and after-school programs improved their standardized test scores in math, while 87 percent improved their scores in reading.

In Portland, LearningWorks Afterschool is offered free to students in grades three through five at East End and Reiche schools. Staffed by certified teachers, ed techs and volunteers, the program offers hands-on enrichment activities, field trips and guest speakers.

LearningWorks Afterschool staff collaborate with school teachers to develop program curriculum that is STEM-focused and relevant to what students are studying during the regular school day.

Pichette said students spent 75 minutes per day focusing on math and science projects. A current project with the theme “My Dream Clubhouse” incorporates measurements, architecture, trips to the Portland Museum of Art and tours of the neighborhood.

“They’re applying skills from school in a different way,” Pichette said. “The more exposure they can get in the same subject in different ways, the more background knowledge they build.”

The consistent attendance each day shows how much students like the program, she added.

“The kids are happy when they’re three and they come because they want to,” Pichette said. “… You can see them learning.”

Pichette said school-day teachers have talked about how students who participate in the after-school program come out of their shells in the classroom. Teachers describe quiet students who “all of a sudden raise their hand and spout out all this information,” she said.

Portland Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr. said school officials are “very excited” to expand the partnership with LearningWorks.

“They’ve been an incredible asset to Portland Public Schools. The program is truly amazing,” Morse said. “To be able to move this program to Ocean Avenue and Presumpscot is really a blessing.”

Teachers have seen students improve in the classroom because they are able to refine their academic skills using different techniques, Morse said.

“Research has shown that after-school programming and preschool are two interventions that really make a difference for children,” he said. “The LearningWorks Afterschool programs at East End and Reiche schools have seen phenomenal results.”

Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant, a retired teacher, said receiving the grants is exciting for his city and for Portland.

“Intervening early in the education of of children who are struggling can make an enormous difference,” Casavant said in a prepared statement. “We’re so pleased to partner with LearningWorks because their program has been so successful in achieving results for its students. I know that it will work phenomenally well in my community.”