When the school bell rings at the end of the day, some kids head home while others go to an after-school care program.
At Wiregrass Elementary in Wiregrass Ranch, dozens of students head to something totally different — a new pilot program called Explorations, which offers them a type of after-school club to learn something new.
Offered for the first time this fall, parents could sign their children up for either dance classes or coding and robotics. The seven-week sessions give them an opportunity to dive into a new skill, get some exercise or maybe even make new friends.
Steve Williams is the principal at Wiregrass Elementary, which is in its third year. It opened as a new school in 2016.
“We have a really engaged and invested community,” explains Williams. “Many parents have said they were interested in enrichment opportunities both in and out of school to go deeper into a topic.”
He started looking for ways to do that and thought partnering with the organization that already provides before- and after-school care for Pasco County Schools, called PLACE — which stands for Pasco Learning & Activity Centers of Enrichment — might be a good fit for a partnership.
Williams says that he approached the district’s After School Enrichment Department, which came up with a plan to launch the program this fall.
Carlotta Mathis is the Enrichment Specialist in that department who now heads Explorations and other programs. She was previously the site manager for Wiregrass Elementary’s PLACE program, so she knows the school well.
Mathis explains that Wiregrass Elementary parents were surveyed to determine the level of interest and what topics parents wanted.
“Parents want their students to be in something extracurricular after school but didn’t necessarily need care for the length of time of PLACE,” says Mathis, “but they did want students to participate in special interest cubs.”
So far, Explorations has been a hit.
Wanda Cook is the school’s bookkeeper and her son, Ethan, is in the fourth grade at Wiregrass Elementary.
“My husband and I wanted Ethan to be able to learn more about coding and robotics,” says Cook. “We think long term that will be great for him.”
Ethan says he enjoys it.
“We are learning about algorithms and how to program stuff, and how to fix it if you do something wrong,” Ethan says. “I like it because I get to learn new things and I get to learn how to program robots.”
Parents love the convenience of having the Explorations program being offered on the school’s campus.
“It’s nice that he doesn’t have to leave the school and go somewhere else,” says Cook.
Julie Cocozziello says she moved to Wesley Chapel this summer. Since her daughter, Emma, who is in the first grade, is a new student, she thought Explorations would be a good way for Emma to have fun and meet more of the students at her new school. She chose the dance class for her daughter.
“It’s a wonderful program,” she says. “It’s a great way to get students involved and make friends and improve their self-esteem. It gives her a chance to have fun, and she even comes home and practices.”
“We selected the courses that would be offered based on the survey results and what the families want to see their kids involved in,” Mathis explains, noting that Wiregrass Elementary’s staff plans to offer one academic and one physical activity each quarter.
Sara MacKnight registered her two kids — Sophia, who is in first grade, and Adam, who is in kindergarten — for the coding and robotics class.
“My kids think they’re just playing games, but they’re learning about algorithms and sequences,” she says. “The fact that they’re getting exposed to this at such a young age — I love it and I wish they would offer it year round.”
Williams and Mathis agree that if parents want it — and they seem to — the program can be expanded at the school so that students can build on the skills they’ve learned in the first session. In addition, from the beginning, they’ve discussed how it could be replicated at other schools.
“It’s been a very positive program,” says Williams. “Many others at the district have seen this and love the idea.”
Mathis says other schools are welcome to survey their parents for interest, and if the survey shows that the interest is there, she is willing to work with the schools to bring the Explorations program to them, too.
To register for the next set of classes, which starts Tuesday, October 23, visit ExplorationsProgram.com.