In the after-school program at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Seabrook, teacher April Smalls gets the daily report on how everyone’s day went. Smalls is a pre-K teacher at James J. Davis Early Childhood Learning Center, which is where the students are bussed from. PHOTOS BY GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

A little after 3 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon, a Beaufort County school bus dropped off 16 young students at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Seabrook.

Although they had just spent all day at James J. Davis Early Childhood Learning Center, they were eager to get on with the next three hours, beginning with a snack and a juice cup.

One by one, the 10 excited students in April Smalls’ pre-kindergarten to first grade after-school class told her how they did in school that day. There were a lot of A-plusses earned for accomplishments from doing homework to being quiet. There was even an A++ for math.

Malachi, 5, likes coming to the program because he likes the singing. Akeena, 4, is learning letter shapes and vowels. A lot of the students said they like math.

In the room two doors down, Sholonda Simmons finished reading a story to her six students who range from second to fourth grade. Their first task after story time was using words written on separate pieces of paper to create a sentence. The next activity is either doing homework or pulling out a storybook.

The church is one of 10 sites county-wide that are participating in the Beaufort County School District’s Extended Learning Community Partnerships in an effort to regain ground lost during the pandemic.

Each of the centers has a unique schedule but the plans must include recreation, snacks, time spent reading, doing math or science, and using a new software program that began this month.

“We tell them to always make sure that you include that recreation time, because we don’t want it to be another three hours of traditional school,” said Gaynelle Dantzler, district director of community and extended learning.

In addition to Mount Carmel, program sites are currently Bluffton Community Soup Kitchen, New Life Deliverance Temple Tutorial Center, Marshview Community Organic Farm, Meadowbrook Baptist Church, Grace AME Church, Scott Community Center, St. Paul Baptist Church, Church of the Harvest, and, in January, St. Andrew By-The-Sea, but the pilot was conducted at Hilton Head Boys & Girls Club.

“One of our goals or areas that we want to really focus on is the community engagement, and so we felt that it was a great opportunity after our school closure with COVID to really engage our communities,” said N’Kia Campbell, BCSD officer of academic initiatives. “We had a lot of community people that reached out to the schools to find ways that they could support our vision, our instructional initiatives and goals in our district. And with that, we partnered with our boys and girls club.”

Kim Likins, director of the Boys & Girls Club of Hilton Head Island, said they call the pilot Saturday Camp so that it didn’t sound like more academics.

“I think overall we had an average of about 47 each Saturday,” she said. “The teachers were wonderful in the morning doing academics, and then we took over in the afternoon and did recreation, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and arts, and provided basically full-day childcare for the parents who needed to work on Saturdays.”

Campbell said it was such a success that they looked for other communities to work with, and focused on St. Helena and Lady’s Island.

“Their model was a little different from the Hilton Head. Every community kind of gave what they felt would work,” said Campbell.

On St. Helena and Lady’s Island, there were six sites supported by churches and nonprofit organizations.

“We really did a lot in three weeks to get those six centers up and running from January to May of this year,” said Dantzler. “The community partners are really vested in this initiative, because they want to see it work. And I think because of the relationships that we’ve developed, I think that they feel that they’re really a part of something huge. I think that it will go far beyond what we started with the pilot.”

At the Bluffton Soup Kitchen, Constance Martin-Witter said each week has a theme for the activities that take place after snacks and homework or work on their computers.

“This week’s theme is sports, and I’m encouraging our little ones to learn old school as well as new school so we’re doing Double-Dutch, jacks, marbles, and four square,” she said. Other activities include art projects, reading, math, science and gardening.

At 5 p.m., the students at the soup kitchen and all of the other sites are served dinner. It’s yet another part of how the program serves both the students and the families. In many cases, without the programs, students would be dropped off at home to wait until the parents or guardians returned from work to prepare dinner.

With the program, the children get an opportunity to get help with homework, have dinner, play and be ready to go home and get ready for bed. That’s the qualitative part of the program, said Campbell.

“When you hear grandmothers in the grocery store saying, ‘Hey, keep this program going on. This is a great resource for me.’ Or ‘When are you going to start this program again,’ we want to be able to capture that as well,” she said.

The program is open to students from kindergarten through grade 12 whose parents are interested in their children participating in the community engagement initiative. Although the schools pass the information on to the parents, a number of enrollments are through word-of-mouth, said Dantzler, whose phone and email are exploding with requests. The maximum number of students per site – with the exception of Hilton Head – is 25 to 27, and the district wants to maintain that number at the moment. Spaces are limited, but there are other community organizations that are interested in being a part of the initiative, said Campbell.

“I think that eventually we’ll get to that, because we don’t want to limit what we’re doing as far as the number of children that we’re impacting. But I think that we have to be strategic in how we partner with other organizations to make sure that we can maintain what it is that we’re doing,” she said.

The program costs approximately $32,000 per site, and is covered by federal grants from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, and the American Rescue Plan ESSER. The program is funded through 2024.

The grants pay for teacher salaries, school supplies, bus costs and meals.

“We’re in the process of creating a sustainability plan, so that is why we’re trying to really document the success of the programs through a quantitative measure: the attendance, the discipline, and the grades,” said Campbell, “but also the qualitative part, where families are feeling loved and supported, and we’re meeting the needs of schools and the students in the community. Part of the sustainability plan is really accessing those grants that are aligned to this initiative that can support us beyond the funding source that we have here. That’s the work that we’re doing now.”

The program seems to have the complete support of every facet of the community, according to Campbell.

“Everyone took ownership of this, and this is what made it successful. I want to talk about our bus drivers. We have a group of bus drivers in the community because they are part of that community. And they are going to make sure that we are informed about every single kid,” she said. “At 7:15 I’m getting a text every night, ‘All kids are home safe.’ And so just that alone just tells you the buy-in and the commitment and love, because they want this to be successful.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.