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Century students' day goes beyond traditional

Volunteer Michelle Ford, right, assists Jeremy Swanson with homework. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

"Really good things are happening beyond the academic day," Century School principal Bruce Gravalin recently told the school board.

The kids would undoubtedly agree.

Programs, both new and existing, are gaining momentum.

Students are arriving before the first bell to get a "jump start" on their day with "structured activities" (a.k.a. play) and remaining after school to complete homework - with assistance - and then moving on to "enrichment opportunities" (a.k.a. fun).

Jump start on the day

The sun is just bumping up over the horizon when muscles - and brain cells - begin a workout at Century School.

Play 60 Jump Start, initiated in November for middle school boys and girls, was founded as a means to combat obesity, Gravalin explained.

He brainstormed with volunteer and nurse Lynn Just and Community Education director Jill Dickinson to come up with a strategy.

Activities begin at 7:45, but kids don't have to be there when it starts, he said. Fifteen to 40 kids arrive for the workout each morning.

Offered at no charge, physical education instructor Aarin Galzi donates his time to engage kids in Chaos Dodgeball on Monday, Ultimate Frisbee (football) Tuesday, basketball on Wednesday, volleyball and basketball on Thursday and an Advisor Challenge, a large group game, on Friday.

"This is not just open gym," Gravalin emphasized.

Meanwhile, the students' younger counterparts - kindergarteners through fourth graders - are also taking part in structured activities, Just and phy ed teacher Molly Aukes volunteering their time from 7:30 to 8 a.m. for Play 30.

The programs began, in part, in response to parents that were heading to work and dropping kids off early. There was no supervision, Gravalin said.

The response is paying dividends.

"The structured physical activity readies the students to learn," Gravalin said of the urchins' endorphin release.

A vision met

Extending the day - 8th Hour - began nine years ago, St. Joseph's Area Health Services Community Health the sponsor.

The program, which is offered free to students in fifth through eighth grades, was initiated as a preventive measure for kids moving through a pivotal period of their lives.

Studies show kids who are involved in activities are less likely to engage in at risk behaviors - drugs, alcohol and tobacco - and tend to achieve academically.

8th Hour is geared to kids who feel disenfranchised, Gravalin said, "that they don't belong. This is where they do."

"It's a hoppin' place," 8th Hour coordinator Mari Jo Lohmeier said of the "organized chaos" that ensues in Century's northerly wing after class is dismissed.

"This is the first year we're seeing the vision happen," she said. "The dream has been for this to be more than just a hangout for homework..."

Mission accomplished.

Several adults arrive to act as mentors. Dana Kocka is a paid assistant who guides a "guys group," where bullying, honesty and other issues are on the table for open discussion.

Volunteers Jeremy Girard, a church youth director, and retired pastor Donald Day, who engages the kids in lively games of table tennis, are also on board.

And now, high school peer mentors will be joining the ranks, 13 from a sociology class, to assist kids with homework then interact on a social basis.

The 8th Hour kids, mostly fifth and sixth graders, can choose from a variety of classes and table games after homework.

"There are so many activities," Lohmeier said. "There's something for everyone." That includes socialization.

"Is this the place to come when you don't want to be picked on?" a fifth grader asked Lohmeier.

"Yes," she assured him. "Everyone finds a place here."

In January, for example, the students can choose to create crafts (Mondays), join Kocka in the weight room for Cardiac Club (also Mondays) or engage in Thursday's computer gaming (a huge hit).

Jewelry making is offered Tuesdays and beginning Spanish (with a dozen signed up) meets Mondays.

In collaboration with 4-H, Mark Haugen instructs a video movie making class.

Initially, five or six kids arrived, now 35 to up to 55 students attend the Monday, Tuesday and Thursday sessions that run from after school to 5 p.m.

"No one comes with a label," Lohmeier said of kids who've been diagnosed with learning or behaviorial disabilities. "We see a different kid than the teachers."

A year ago, Community Education began offering After School Adventures for the elementary students in kindergarten through fourth grade, Monday through Friday.

Nine volunteers arrive to assist with homework time (a half-hour is required), accompanied by snacks. Teachers refer students in need of one-on-one assistance. Afterward, kids can go out for structured, large motor play.

The class has grown since its inception, Dickinson reports of the 32, on average, arriving each afternoon.

The late bus service, re-established this year, has been a boon to the programs. Park Rapids Education and Activity Foundation and St. Joseph's made a two-year commitment to fund the three buses that head out at 5:15 p.m. for Lake George, Hubbard and Ponsford, the passengers having met their daily quota of education and structured activities (fun!).