By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.
“Pond Gap has the answer: provide needed support with daily activities, teach engaging skills after-school, and show students and parents that ‘school’ is a way of life.”
A Pond Gap student practices interviewing skills with his classmates during a music and performance class led by Ronda Mostella.
When school was out at Pond Gap in the 60s, I went home to watch television. My folks were often still working, so I grabbed a snack in time for the start of the Early Show, a program that showed mostly reruns of old Tarzan movies. I sat for hours by myself not wanting to miss prime time shows like Andy Griffith or the Beverly Hillbillies. If I were attending Pond Gap Elementary today, however, my childhood would be different. I would be able to stay at school and participate in a wide range of fun, creative activities, take field trips to local events, and even have dinner.
Bob Kronick had this vision of a full-service community school in the late 1990s. A professor of educational psychology at UT, Bob was researching how to improve academic achievement in Title 1 schools, those schools whose student body comes from less advantaged backgrounds and often includes children of immigrant families. He later encountered the university-assisted community school movement and convinced James McIntyre, then the incoming superintendent of Knox County schools, to let him design a program for use in local schools. In 2010, Susan Esperitu, the principal at Pond Gap, joined forces with Bob and Pond Gap became a national model for delivery of a wide range of after-school services. This model receives generous support from several sources, including local philanthropist Randy Boyd, United Way, and the Boys and Girls Club.
Just how comprehensive are these after-school services? Mark Benson currently coordinates the myriad of offerings. He notes that students receive extra help with academic subjects such as reading and mathematics. Students can also take lessons in art and music year round. Problem solving and team building skills are taught through such activities as science night, cooking classes, and the stilt-walking club. Medical and eye exams are provided on site as well as washers and dryers. Counseling services are available to help students with difficult issues such as the loss of a loved one. After dinner is served at 6:30, parents can even attend special classes such as those that prepare for the GED, teach Spanish or Mandarin, or teach English as a second language.
After-school Coordinator Mark Benson observes as Blaine Sample teaches mathematics to Pond Gap students.
Pond Gap has become a model for how to integrate academic instruction with community services that builds student confidence, takes certain burdens off overworked parents, and leads to a reduction of student problems, such as tardiness, absences, and behavioral referrals. Nationally, schools are implementing Common Core standards that elevate the bar of acceptable academic performance. For these standards to work with certain populations, Pond Gap has the answer: provide needed support with daily activities, teach engaging skills after-school, and show students and parents that “school” is a way of life.
On a recent visit to Pond Gap, I sat in the office waiting to interview Susan Espiritu. Back in the 60s, I was sent to the principal’s office often, for engaging in disruptive behaviors. My only after-school memories were of detention. As I looked at young students in the hallways switching classes, I thought of all the opportunities that awaited them and felt sad at the experiences that I probably missed. As the principal asked me to come observe the special programs, however, I knew this time I would not mind staying after-school.
Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS (www.testprepexperts.com ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at email@example.com.