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School Systems Join Forces to Reinstate Afterschool Program in Toombs County

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The Toombs County and Vidalia Boards of Education pledged $200,000 to reinstate and fund the afterschool program, which was previously funded through the 21st Century Grant.

These school systems are partnering with the Toombs County Family Connection (TCFC) to continue the program that began years ago when the prior Toombs County Family Connection Director applied for the first 21st Century Grant and received $3.5 million. Current TCFC Director Paige Williamson explained, “She (the previous director) really decided to go for this grant on a wing and a prayer, and somehow, she got it.” Upon receiving funding, the TCFC worked with its fiscal agent, Toombs County Schools, for the next decade to serve students with working parents who may have been going home to empty houses until their parents came home. These students, known in the education setting as “latch-key children,” were housed in Lyons Upper Elementary and Toombs County Middle Schools each afternoon to complete homework and other activities until returning home to their parents. Within three years of the establishment of this program, Vidalia Schools joined the partnership and began to offer the same program on their campus. These programs were referred to as the “21st Century Program” within the schools and served students from Kindergarten through 8th grade. The partnership was successful throughout the years, as TCFC handled oversight and hiring of workers while the school handled fiscal responsibilities and liabilities. Within the initial year of the program, the budget had a lot of excess money. This money was used to purchase various supplies, such as iPads and band equipment.

Williamson shared that the goal of these purchases was to “cultivate new opportunities and possibilities for the students within the program.” She provided an example of this through students’ enjoyment of afternoon art classes, which many did not normally receive during the school day.

The program remained strong until another 21st Century Grant was applied for and not received prior to the 2019-2020 school year. “We were heartbroken – it was so abrupt,” Williamson commented on the subject. Yet, the program was restored through the enthusiasm of Toombs County Schools Superintendent Barry Waller.

“Mr. Waller really rallied and gave the program $75,000,” Williamson said. The rest of the funding came from fundraising efforts, with community members having donated a total of $50,000 to ensure the program was held. “I think that is the epitome of a strong partnership between the community and the schools because our community was on board 100%, Churches, banks, businesses, and individual donors all generously gave,” she emphasized.

Yet, with the conclusion of the 2019-2020 school year and the widespread pandemic, the afterschool program funding through 21st Century failed to be restored. In response to this situation, the local school systems have given $200,000 each to the continuation of the programs, now known as Toombs County Afterschool and Vidalia Learning Center.

“For both school systems to step up and both Boards of Education to commit funds to be invested into these students who otherwise may be going home to empty houses in the afternoons, to provide opportunities and invest in the kids is incredible,” Waller explained. “A few years ago, when we found out we were not getting that 21st Century Grant, we could have thrown our hands up and given up. But it was not a hard decision to make to help our kids; it was difficult to get the money. Now, with CARES funding, we have the opportunity to provide that.”

Vidalia School Superintendent Dr. Garrett Wilcox shared his inspiration for the contribution by discussing the success of the program with students. “We’ve seen the value and watched the program grow over time and it’s a great opportunity for kids that might not be involved in athletics or other opportunities to gain some structured supervision and academic help,” he said. “It’s another opportunity to build a relationship with somebody that might support them as they move through the educational process.” Wilcox continued to share that he had recently witnessed 5 students who graduated and stayed close with staff they met through afterschool long after their K-12 educational career ended. “It is true mentorship,” he concluded.

Williamson also discussed this mentorship, as she witnessed firsthand its power through her work as an afterschool art teacher prior to becoming TCFC Director. “When you spend time with kids in that 1:10 ratio for 12 hours a week, you’re going to really get to know them and their families,” she said. She is still in contact with two students she mentored. These students have contacted Williamson for many things throughout the year, including help with opening checking accounts, building resumes, or getting into college.

“They’re living proof that the program works when you invest your time and energy,” she shared. “I know these students feel the love and care that the afterschool workers and the community have for them because I see it every time I go into the schools.”

Williamson explained that the goal of the program this year is to focus on academics as well as social and emotional development. To accomplish these goals, TCFC and the schools have partnered with Toombs County Prevention, Treatment, & Recovery to teach students awareness and life skills. “If there was a word for our mission this year, it would be ‘connection, ’” Williamson summarized.

Waller reinforced this point by noting the enthusiasm of the many teachers who choose to work with the afterschool program. “They see it as an opportunity to be more hands-on and intentional,” he said. “It would be easy to be tired and want to go home, but they see it as a second chance to touch kids’ lives. All teachers build relationships with kids, but with this different environment, it is easier to build that connection.”

According to Williamson, it is important that students see that teachers are human. Through this program, students are able to witness that fact, and administrators say this realization changes the perspective and behavior of students. “They respect you after spending that kind of time with them,” Waller added. “When you tell them to do something, they do it because they know you care about them.” Because of the money pledged by the schools, the Vidalia Learning Center and Toombs County Afterschool Programs are able to continue to form these important connections and bonds, as well as get academic assistance. To continue this work, the TCFC and schools plan to write and apply for another 21st Century Grant to ensure the program is not eradicated after this year.

Currently, the programs can hold a total of 145 students, but currently have 110 students enrolled. These students are separated into groups based on grade level, and these groups are limited in capacity. The programs have established an objective rubric to determine who is accepted into afterschool if there is a competition.

The program runs Monday through Thursday from 3-5:30 p.m. During this time, students participate in outdoor time, an hour of academic studies, and an hour of enrichment, and receive a snack, which is provided through USDA and the school, “Honestly, I don’t think either school or entity could pull off a program like this without the other,” Waller concluded. “Both schools could have taken the CARES money and put it in other places separately, but we see that the most important thing is our students. That’s what made both school systems able to commit funds: minds focused on what’s best for the children in our community.”

CREATIVITY FLOURISHING — At Lyons Primary School, students in the Toombs County After School program work on an art project to provide a creative outlet for enrichment.

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