A few weeks ago, Hyman Molett would walk out of Clinton Middle School with limited options about how to spend the rest of his day.
Now the eighth-grader gets to play video games and chess with his classmates and favorite teacher at least twice a week. Clinton is the third middle school to adopt the AfterOpp program, which offers students a chance to explore their interests through a variety of after-school clubs.
Molett didn’t hesitate to join the games club when his school began piloting the program in mid-April.
“I like chess, and I had nothing better to do at home,” he said. “And the digital gaming is a plus.”
AfterOpp was created by The Opportunity Project, a citywide intermediary network that connects schools with organizations and agencies to improve the quality and access of expanded-learning opportunities.
The Opportunity Project launched last spring to assist Tulsa Public Schools after the district received a four-year grant as part of the Partnerships for Social and Emotional Learning Initiative by New York-based Wallace Foundation.
Since then, one of The Opportunity Project’s main goals has been increasing the number of after-school programs available for middle school students.
Caroline Shaw, the organization’s executive director, said her team discovered middle-schoolers have fewer after-school learning opportunities than students in elementary and high school. The lack of options, she said, can be detrimental to their success down the road.
“Increasingly we’re finding that if a high school student is at risk of dropping out, that mindset and the foundation for that really happens in middle school,” Shaw said. “So it’s less of a ninth- or 10th-grade problem and more of a seventh- and eighth-grade problem.”
Part of her reasoning is the idea that middle-school students need to find relevance in what they’re learning in the classroom to their lives in the outside world. She also believes building relationships with caring adults can propel them to succeed through graduation.
That line of thinking led to the creation of AfterOpp and its implementation at Hale and Will Rogers College junior high schools in the fall. Because The Opportunity Project typically does not work directly with students, the organization uses its partners — including Tulsa Debate League and Youth at Heart — to serve as site-level coordinators.
When the program came to Webster Middle School, English teacher Ryan Boatright jumped at the chance to start a club for video games with a splash of chess on the side. He’s in the process of starting an eSports team at the school, and this club is operating as a sort of trial run.
In addition to providing a fun after-school alternative to sports, Boatright said the program allows students to bond better not only with one another but with an adult mentor, as well.
“Every teacher has their philosophies, but I’m a firm believer in relationship building,” he said. “That’s how you teach a kid. You can yell at them, scream at them, beg, plead, whatever. But unless you build a relationship, you’re not going to be able to reach them.
“I’m a giant kid, so being able to come together on something we both enjoy truly does build really good relationships and gives us the opportunity to teach them how to be competitive the right way.”
The mentors don’t always need to be teachers.
Josiah Kelly, a local graphic designer and choreographer at the Gathering Place, leads a hip-hop dance club at Webster as part of AfterOpp. He did the same at Hale and Will Rogers earlier this school year.
Teaching the class gives Kelly a chance to introduce students to an art form that encourages self-expression and creativity. He also stresses the importance of after-school programs for at-risk kids, noting that his own involvement in a dance team when he was in school helped keep him out of trouble.
“I talk to the kids, and they tell me things they could be doing or would be doing if they weren’t in some type of after-school program,” he said. “Sometimes home life is not conducive or the most safe. So the fact that we get to offer that, some type of comfortable, safe place, is very important.”
Social and emotional learning (SEL) has been another focus area for The Opportunity Project. The organization collaborated with Tulsa Public Schools to launch Relate 918, a community-wide initiative designed to build students’ life skills and emotional intelligence in school and beyond the classroom.
As part of the grant funding from the Wallace Foundation, Relate 918 has been implemented at the district’s five pilot SEL-focused elementary schools — Eugene Field, Council Oak, McClure, Robertson and Whitman.
These sites receive additional resources and professional development to support them in implementing social and emotional learning during and after school.
At Eugene Field, The Opportunity Project partnered with YMCA Tulsa to amplify the services of GO Club, an after-school program that currently serves about 90 students there.
Their collaboration resulted in a better emphasis on building strong social and emotional skills in part through hands-on learning, Eugene Field Principal Angela Graham said.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the kids enrolled in GO Club experimented with dry ice and studied animal brains to learn about states of matter. They worked alongside biomedical students from Tulsa’s Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences.
Graham said there’s been a significant decrease in disciplining since implementing the Relate 918 initiative.
“We’re seeing kids increasingly able to regulate, to pause, to consider and come up with their own solutions,” Graham said. “That’s huge for kids that come from high-trauma backgrounds where the natural reaction is to (instantly) react.”