March 17. 2013 10:17PM

School day's end is also a beginning at Nashua after school program

Union Leader Correspondent

Instructor Jonathan Starks shows Rebeca Lins, 10, and Mariana Sierra, 9, the different parts of a silkscreen machine so they can learn how to make their own custom T-shirts. (BENJAMIN C. KLEIN PHOTO)

NASHUA - With more than 800 children spread across five elementary schools and all three middle schools, the federally funded 21st Century After School Program is designed to provide a safe place for children of working parents in impoverished areas.

In order for a school to qualify for the program, roughly a third of the student population must be eligible for free or school lunches. Once a school is eligible, every student is eligible to enroll in the program that, at a maximum, costs $50 a month for a child to attend every day.

Kim Moreno said that because she and her husband work, having an affordable after-school program for 7-year-old Dmitri and 10-year-old Juliana is a huge help.

"My children are here so we can work, but they also like it. The program offers activities that would typically be much more expensive to participate in," she said.

Sue Almeida, director of the 21st Century After School Program, said that the program is funded by a federal grant administered through the state. She added the program is currently up for reapplication for the five-year grant.

"I am not worried about losing our funding," she said. "We are one of the biggest programs in the state and well established."

Superintendent Mark Conrad said that along with the Adult Learning Center, a nonprofit organization that rents space in all 12 elementary schools for a pre-school and after-school program, 21st Century is a necessity for the district.

"Both programs do an excellent job of coordinating with students' teachers to ensure that any subject they need extra help with is emphasized after school," Conrad said, who added no money from the district goes to either program.

Almeida said 21st Century programs have been in the district since 2000 and are currently located in Amherst Street, Dr. Crisp, Fairgrounds, Ledge Street and Mount Pleasant elementary schools and the Elm Street, Fairgrounds and Pennichuck middle schools.

"We have only been in the middle schools for the last four years. Five or six years ago they wouldn't have qualified," she said.

For kids, the after-school program is not something where they get to run around unstructured and unsupervised.

Deb Kudalis, Amherst Street Elementary School 21st Century Program coordinator, said 3 to 4 p.m. is homework time, 4 to 5 p.m. is spent in enrichment class, and 5 to 5:45 p.m. is for downtime as children wait to be picked up. Children are also provided a free snack and given a brief recess.

"A lot of these students have 10 to 11 hour days with school and the program combined, but they love it. There are times when students ask to be picked up early, and when parents show up early the kids don't want to go home and get very upset. I tell parents not to listen to the kids in the morning," Kudalis said.

Rosemarie Dillingham ran into just such a problem with her daughter Kaysi, 6, when she went to pick her up Thursday.

"She just gave me attitude because I came to pick her up early," Dillingham said with a laugh.

Dillingham said she enrolled Kaysi, an only child, into the program so that she gets as much social experience with other children as possible.

"I absolutely think this program is great. I love that I don't have to go somewhere else, and she doesn't have to get on a bus to go to the program. It's right here, and with the school all secure it is even better," she said.

Kudalis said the program offers a wide variety of programs, including athletics, arts and crafts, and academics.

Classes include karate, beading, fun math problems, science classes, silk screening, basketball and more. Almeida said each program at each school is different because "the culture of each school is different."

"A cheerleading class in one program that is very popular might not work in another school," she said.

The long days don't seem to bother the children at all.

Gwen Dockham, 9, and Martha Patino, 8, were goofing around during a beading class, proudly proclaiming that they are BFFs or "best friends forever."

Both said they enjoyed the program, with Gwen saying she would rather be in there than at home after school.

Rebeca Lins, 10, and Mariana Sierra, 9, are learning how to make custom T-shirts in a silkscreen class using equipment donated by the PTO.

Instructor Jonathan Starks reminded the girls that along with learning how to use the machine, they always have to clean up afterwards.

Zianna Ramos, 9, said that it isn't so bad being in the after-school program, despite having to do homework.

"It's really fun here, I don't mind coming here. It's not all about school work. Sometimes it's about having fun," Ramos said.