Mercyhurst strengthens lifeline for struggling inner-city K-2 pupils

Carpe Diem Academy

It’s not a new idea. But in an age of big budget cuts in education, when there’s hardly enough money to fund the regular school day, extended day learning centers are getting a closer look at helping low-performing schools meet state and local academic standards.

In Erie, Mercyhurst University has emerged as a leader in that regard through its Carpe Diem Academy, an extended day program supporting K-2 students at four inner-city schools. The program is funded by a $1.5 million state Department of Education 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant. Now entering its second school year, the academy is too new to identify measurable outcomes. However, anecdotal evidence suggests the broad scope of this particular program is making a difference in the lives of the pupils it serves, according to Dr. Leanne Roberts, associate dean of the Hafenmaier School of Education and Behavioral Sciences at Mercyhurst.

“I’ve done a great deal of research and I’ve found extended day programs that are arts-based or focused on homework support or are simply day care, but I have not found a program operated by a university education department like ours that is so extensive,” Roberts said. “We provide literacy and math blocks, arts and cultural experiences, a nutritious snack and dinner, and 30 minutes of physical activity daily. Because the City of Erie School District’s after-school programming has typically been for grades three and up, we are touching a population that has never been reached before.”

The feedback has been positive. School principals have reported a reduction in absences among pupils who attend the academy; parents have offered positive feedback and district personnel who are familiar with the program and seen it in action are anticipating positive results,” Roberts said.

She credits academy director Amy Bauschard with overseeing the curriculum and managing the day-to-day operation that includes more than 25 staff and 280 students. The academy runs Monday through Thursday from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. at Edison, Lincoln, McKinley and Diehl schools.

Among the staff are 12 Pennsylvania certified teachers enrolled in Mercyhurst’s graduate program in special education and approximately 20 undergraduate education majors. Each school has four classrooms, a dance instructor, a visiting artist and a physical fitness coach. Additional small group and one-on-one instruction and assessment is facilitated through preservice teachers gaining supervised clinical experience as part of their course requirements.

“We don’t simply read to the students or do homework, we offer a full literacy program that complements the district’s curriculum map,” Roberts said. “The same holds true for math. We utilize games from the Everyday Math program that is used within the district. We strive to reinforce the skills and concepts taught during the school hours in an engaging and fun way.”

Not only are steps taken to ensure that the academy pupils go home with their minds enlightened, but that their tummies are full as well. Since the academy provides both an after-school snack and dinner, a good number of its young participants are actually eating all three meals at school. Roberts said the staff uses mealtime as an opportunity to develop socialization skills, teach manners and create a home-like atmosphere.

“They eat with their friends in the classrooms rather than in a large cafeteria setting,” Roberts said. “Typically soft background music can be heard playing while the children eat. Occasionally we ‘set a table’ and use forks, spoons and cups rather than sporks and milk cartons.”

The program is a win-win situation in that Mercyhurst students are also benefitting from the experience. Besides enhancing their teaching skills, the Mercyhurst teachers have undergone supplemental training inCPR and pediatric first aid. The group has also been trained through the Positive Youth Development of Erie County initiative in Developmental Assets®, 40 positive experiences and qualities that help influence choices young people make and help them become caring, responsible and successful adults.

The Carpe Diem Academy is named after the Mercyhurst University motto – Seize the Day – and also involves parents, who are offered seminars ranging from public health to nutrition.
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