Whether it's making pizza, learning how plastic is formed, creating works of art or honing their academic skills, students participating in the before and after school program at schools in Cahokia and Madison are learning nearly three extra hours, four days a week.
The program is Extension Cares for Every Learner, or ExCEL, and it is run by the University of Illinois Extension in partnership with Cahokia School District 187 and Madison School District 12.
Parent Delphya Trimble, of Cahokia, said her 9-year-old son Nicholas Trimble, a fourth-grader at Huffman Elementary School in Cahokia, thoroughly enjoys the program. "It's helped him out a lot with all types of different things," Trimble said, especially the extra academic help in the morning.
Nicholas said ExCEL is "great. It's a lot of fun. I learn new things in the program I didn't know before."
Most kids don't want to go to school early or stay late; however, that's not the case for ExCEL students, according to Trimble. "That says a whole lot to me about the staff and school," she said. "They must be doing a really good job for him (Nicholas) to want to come here and do the extra schooling."
Students in the ExCEL program, which is at Huffman and Lalumier elementary schools in Cahokia and Bernard Long Elementary and Madison Junior High schools in Madison, must be at their school by 8 a.m. Monday through Thursday to receive extra academic help in order to be eligible to participate in the after school portion of the program from 3:30 to 4:45 p.m.
Parent Lakeesha Rhodes, of Cahokia, said the ExCEL program has helped her 10-year-old daughter Myleisha, a fourth-grader at Huffman, with a subject she was struggling in -- math. Now Myleisha is on the honor roll for math. "It's obviously working," Rhodes said of the program.
In addition, ExCEL has improved her daughter's social skills, according to Rhodes. "It's teaching her to get along better with others," she said.
Currently, ExCEL site coordinator Barb Larson said about 50 students in fourth- through sixth-grade participate in the program at Huffman. For an hour each morning, seven certified teachers help the students with their math and reading, and for more than an hour and a half each afternoon, four certified teachers and four assistants help the students learn new life skills like creating something usable out of duct tape or sewing a pillow out of old clothing.
"It's a remarkable program for the kids," Larson said.
As part of the program, every ExCEL student is enrolled in the 4-H Youth Development Program, and students participate in 4-H Community Clubs and 4-H Project Clubs, ExCEL program Director Karen Tilashalski said.
Another component of the ExCEL program at Huffman is Teens Teaching Youth Biotechnology, where high school students come in and teach younger students about basic biotechnology concepts like cells, DNA and heredity. This year, Tilashalski said 12 teens from Cahokia and Madison high schools were recruited for the program.
Steve Wagoner, who coordinates Teens Teaching Youth Biotech, said the teens serve as role models for the younger students, and the high school students gain valuable leadership skills, increase their knowledge of science and learn to work collaboratively with others.
The goal of the ExCEL program, Larson said, is to "increase test scores, give them (students) a better handle on academics and provide a variety of activities they have not had exposure too."
"The ExCEL program helps students academically and helps them have experiences they might not be able to have," said Huffman Principal Melissa Rebmann. "The most beneficial aspect for most of them is to have those hands-on engaging activities that we provide them in the evenings -- things like archery, the cooking classes and the duct-tape activity. They make the mind think out of the box."
Teacher Denise Buettner said the program gives the students "an opportunity to experience things they wouldn't normally do. It's fun to see them learn new things and get excited about it," she said.
"It's truly amazing to see their eyes light up, because they are so excited," teacher Lynn Pelker said.
The ExCEL program is primarily funded through the Illinois State Board of Education 21st Century Community Learning Center grants. The cost to have the program this school year is just over $372,000, Tilashalski said. All staff members of the program, including the high school students, are paid an hourly wage for their time.
Next year, the ExCEL program will begin its final year of a five-year funding program, which means it will cease to exist at the end of next school year at Huffman, Lalumier and Long elementary schools, according to Tilashalski. The program has been at all three schools for the last nine years.
However, it's possible other schools in the Cahokia and Madison school districts may qualify for the grant. The Madison Junior High School ExCEL site is in its fourth year of operation, Tilashalski said, and after next school year, may have the option to apply for an additional five-year grant.
The ExCEL program runs for about 28 weeks every school year. The program will end this month at Huffman and Long elementary schools and Madison Junior High and run through May at Lalumier Elementary School.
If it wasn't for the ExCEL program, Huffman sixth-grader Morwin Coney, 13, of Cahokia, said he would just be at home "doing nothing. The program has kept me out of the streets and out of trouble," he said.
Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or email@example.com.