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YouthNet Continues to Capture Teen Attention in 5th Year

Local non-profit after school programs are attracting hundreds of students

There’s a lot of life in the middle schools after 3 p.m.

It was well after the final bell had rung at South Orange Middle School, but the inviting smell of popcorn was everywhere. But if you wanted to partake, the cafeteria was the wrong direction — the goods were to be had during the Animaniacs Club, one of YouthNet’s vibrant after school enrichment offerings.

Diane Grant, a SOMS 6th grade science teacher and YouthNet instructor, delivers a movie and the traditional snacks to club members each Friday.

“It really gives the kids time to unwind and socialize,” she said. “It let’s them see a movie and just have fun. It’s important to get together outside of the academic environment. It removes the formality of the regular day. Socialization is a very important part of school life!” she added.

And the kids don’t just chow down and zone out — they’re actively engaged in the screening, and need to come up with their own reviews, which are shared with the others in discussion led by Grant. The club members all vote on each movie selection, and there wasn’t an empty seat for that day’s viewing of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. A quick straw poll during an “intermission” at the half way point resulted in a unanimous thumbs up.

Heading out of Animaniacs and around the corner, YouthNet’s Step Club was taking up an open hallway with a vigorous and spirited routine. Club member Siyara Herbert quickly volunteered her enthusiasm for Step, explaining, “It’s really a mixture of dance AND cheerleading. We all bring ideas for a number and it just comes together!” She offered a live demo before I could even ask

Step Club instructor Jackie Clark, a SOMS special education teacher during school hours, is equal to the kids’ energy.  “I’m excited to work with these kids- they design dances that really promote school spirit and bring together kids from the  6th and 7th grade that would not normally socialize together,” she said.

YouthNet, a local non-profit, serves the teen population of the Maplewood and South Orange middle schools by creating unique after school enrichment and community outreach opportunities for students. Now entering its fifth year, YouthNet continues to develop new ways to enroll the kids’ imaginations.  

At YouthNet’s core are the 30-40 club activities that are offered free of charge to all participants; students can extend their school day by engaging in a variety of one to two hour club sessions that begin at 3:15. Beyond dance and movies, there’s Jazz Lab, Cooking, Technology and Badminton, just to name a few — and all you have to do is sign up.

Maplewood Middle School YouthNet Coordinator and science teacher Kevin Mason has been at the helm since the beginning.

“We’ve got a lot of participation, and the clubs really help kids interact with others that they would not normally see because they’re separated by grade level or curriculum during the school day,” Mason explained. “And we’ve really been able to provide bridges to some things that have been dropped from the subject roster, like Home Economics. Our Cooking Club has filled that void extremely well.”

YouthNet has also brought out hidden skills of many of the teacher/advisors, letting them display their own cross disciplinary strengths. Juan Bas, a gym teacher at MMS, has been contributing his formidable creative writing skills to the Writing Club, and both schools also have an active Knitting Club. “It really carries over. I’ve seen kids knitting during homeroom the next day,” added Mason.

And you don’t need any coaxing to get the teachers — and the kids — to share their passion for the program. The Spelling Club, led by English Language Learners teacher Katie Simpson, has lofty goals that would not be attainable without the support of YouthNet.

Through her club and with YouthNet’s support, Simpson incorporated a school-wide spelling bee into the annual “Battle of the Classes” in December, which until then had been primarily an athletic competition. During the run up to the “Battle…”, Simpson provided other language arts teachers with the official spelling bee word lists to review as part of their regular curriculum.

But club participants had a leg up because of their extra practice in the YouthNet setting, and dozens of kids jumped at the chance to participate in the school wide bee.

“It generated a lot of enthusiasm. I thought it was important to compete academically, not just athletically…and we now have a spelling bee finalist who can move on to the regional and National Scripps Spelling Bee competitions,” she explained. “We had never been part of the national process, but YouthNet’s support made it happen,” she said.  

The final school spelling bee was held in the library and was televised so it could be viewed in front of the entire school - with 8th grader Rory Yarter winning top honors.

“It was a dream come true, thanks to YouthNet,” said Simpson. Next up for Rory is the regional bee in mid-March in Bergen County, and then if she wins regions, it’s on to the semifinals and then the National Scripps Bee in Washington, D.C., with YouthNet supporting her every step of the way.

MMS art teacher Michelle Reisman leads the Stay Late and Create Club, which inspires artistic expression in all mediums, and it exemplifies YouthNet’s efforts to connect with the community. When the miniature Dickens Village was erected last December (a downtown Maplewood tradition), Michelle’s club was tabbed to create new holiday food out of papier mache. Having done that, the kids came up with the idea to extend that project to other local businesses by having the kids create a facsimile of the merchants’ wares for window display. Club members loved the idea of creating a Plaster of Paris book for the local bookstore, a giant hamburger for the burger joint, and other creations to connect the merchants and the community with YouthNet’s energy.

By engaging our youth in our community and after school, the connections and learning opportunities that YouthNet provides are limited only by the imaginations of the kids. All of the YouthNet clubs are led and advised by District teachers, and YouthNet programming is available to all Maplewood/South Orange middle school students. “YouthNet has made things better for our communities and our schools,” offered SOMS YouthNet coordinator Kathy Hester. “There’s a real need for all of this extended enrichment. The new settings helps the teachers become appreciated in a different light, and it’s all a great release for the kids.”

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