Hawaii Tribune Herald Isle after-school program celebrated

Some educators refer to it as “The Danger Zone.”

It’s that period of time after middle school lets out, between 3 and 6 p.m., when kids with little or nothing to keep them occupied can fall through the cracks, said Dawn Dunbar, president and CEO of After-School All-Stars Hawaii.

“When you’ve got kids of single parents or working families, there’s that time when they have no supervision or anything to do,” she said. “There’s been a lot of research that shows that between those hours, a lot of risky behaviors can take place.”

Bored students can turn to drinking, smoking, drugs, fighting and other mischief that can have serious repercussions, added Liza Saplan, an after-school program coordinator at Ka‘u Middle School.

Enter the After-School All-Stars program, which works to provide safe, supervised learning and recreational opportunities for kids once school has let out.

Today, the national program’s Hawaii chapter will celebrate this year’s launch of the program on Hawaii Island, the first expansion to a Neighbor Island after the program began on Oahu four years ago.

This academic year, participating students at Keaau and Ka‘u middle schools and Pahoa Intermediate have benefited from the federally funded program by partaking in a variety of classes and after-school sports, Dunbar said.

“More often than not, we partner with the schools to offer more enrichment, whether it be through sports, or other activities,” she said.

Students are asked to spend the first hour of the daily program on homework or tutoring before diving into other activities, she said. Depending on the expertise available through East Hawaii’s 12 staff members, students can learn about cooking, gardening, soccer, or even hip-hop and hula dancing.

Each school’s program got about $100,000 to fund operations, meaning that parents didn’t have to pay anything out of pocket to keep their kids in a safe and constructive environment once the normal school day ended.

“It provides a safe haven for kids on campus. It engages them, and gives them productive things to do,” Dunbar said.

Each school can handle about 100 kids at a time, but Dunbar said that no one has been turned away.

“At the beginning of the year, we have a lot more kids who sign up. Then it slowly drops off over the year,” she said.

At Ka‘u, the All-Stars program merged this year with a similar program, United Peer Learning Integrating New Knowledge or UPLINK, which had operated there since 2008, said Saplan.

“It gives us even more resources,” she said. “We’re able to offer more activities, more staff.”

Part of what makes the program successful is the fact that it impacts kids before they make the transition to high school, which can be a difficult one.

“We require kids to meet a GPA (grade point average) requirement, they have to complete a sports physical. We are helping them to get acclimated with all the things they’ll encounter in high school sports, and activities,” she said.

The program also addresses special needs students, she added. For instance, at the end of this month, Ka‘u will be sending seven general education and seven special education students to Oahu to participate in a Special Olympics softball competition.

While the program has operated at the three East Hawaii schools throughout the academic year, organizers held off on officially announcing and launching the effort until all the “kinks had been worked out,” Dunbar said.

Today, at 4:30 p.m., program organizers will join Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui at Keaau Middle School’s cafeteria to kick off the program on the island and spread the word.

In late March, Tsutsui announced that he would be bringing similar efforts under a statewide umbrella, known as the Hawaii Intermediate/Middle School Challenge.

“Currently, the majority of existing intermediate/middle school programs are supported by unpredictable federal funding. A more reliable source of funding would provide greater stability for the programs, as well as greater participation,” reads a press release issued by Tsutsui’s office. “Accordingly, using a community based approach the program will seek to utilize available federal and state funds, while also partnering with the schools, parents and the private sector to provide funding and resources to facilitate the program’s success.”

The national All-Stars program was founded in 1990 by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Its goal is to prepare middle school students from grades 6-8 for high school, college and beyond by offering academic support, enrichment opportunities and health/fitness activities. It serves 80,000 students annually through after-school and summer programs in 12 chapters around the country. Hawaii is the newest chapter, with eight middle schools on Oahu and three middle schools on the Big Island.

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