Ilchester Elementary pupils have a great time in school -- after school

ILCHESTER Elementary School in Ellicott City has some rather unusual after-school programs. Kids can take classes that teach them how to make fleece blankets, draw, unearth the secrets of magic tricks, speak Spanish and German, and communicate in sign language.

A franchised "Mad Science" program that explores science through child-friendly experiments is also popular. And perhaps the most successful after-school program is the homework club, now in its fifth year and going stronger than ever.


Ilchester Elementary, which opened eight years ago, has been offering an innovative mix of after-school programs for the past five years. The roster of programs changes each year, depending on the interests of pupils and the parents who run the programs, but some of the more popular programs - including the homework club - endure.

The after-school programs are organized by the PTA and, in most cases, led by parents, said Tiffany Wendt, who has been organizing the program for the past three years as chairwoman of the PTA's after-school activity committee. She also is a substitute teacher and parent of two Ilchester pupils: fourth-grader Brock and second-grader Sarah.


"She takes input from a lot of parents," Principal Jacqueline Conarton said of Wendt.

Every spring, the school PTA newsletter, Cheetah Spots, includes a request to parents, asking if they have a fun skill that they'd like to bring to the school. In general, if fewer than five children sign up for a program, it will be canceled. Some of the more popular programs have as many as 20 pupils, Wendt said.

Parents and other program leaders are paid for their time from class tuition, typically $8 per pupil per one-hour session, Wendt said. The sessions are held in the fall, winter and spring and are usually eight weeks long. Most programs are offered one afternoon a week, although the homework club meets Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Some of the children participating in the after-school programs are in after-care, a Recreation and Parks Department program that provides supervision after the last bell rings. Other pupils simply stay late because they enjoy the programs. The classes are held Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 3:45 p.m. to 4:45 p.m.

On a recent Tuesday, the school was bustling with activity long after the black-and-yellow school buses had departed. About 20 pupils in grades two through five were in the homework club, plowing through math problems and dipping into spelling homework under the guidance of Julie Bartel and Carol Sagi, both fourth-grade teachers.

Kids like the homework club because they get snacks along with their homework help. Of course, there's a social element, too. And both kids and parents like the fact that pupils finish homework while they're still in school so they're free to enjoy the rest of their evening. The program also is popular because it re-enforces good study habits and makes homework fun. In fact, the children are often so focused that they finish the current assignments and move on to homework that's due later in the week, Bartel said.

Stephanie Robinson, a fifth-grader, said she likes the program because "we have the best teachers." This is her second year of signing up for the homework club. Her friend Stephanie Katz, also in fifth-grade, has been part of the club since the start of the school year.

"You get your homework done, and the best teachers are here, and it's fun," she said.


When Sagi asked Alex Pearsall, a second-grader, what he liked about the program, the youngster gave a one-word answer: "Chips."

Alex's mother, Jessica Pearsall, said that her son, who has Down syndrome, "actually prefers to do his homework here." She said, "They do a great job of including him like the other kids."

And she likes the fact that Alex is learning good study habits that he practices while doing homework at home.

Down a flight of stairs and in another room, Oksana Trent was teaching a creative-drawing class to pupils in kindergarten through second grade. As the class wrapped up, one pupil after another approached Trent to show off the pencil drawings that they had created that day.

On this day, they were working on cartooning. Trent, now in her second year at the helm of the after-school class at Ilchester, oohed and aahed over sketches of a blackboard with a face and an animated-looking banana.

Trent has a child at Hollifield Station Elementary School and said she also teaches drawing at Hollifield and Worthington elementaries. Though most of the programs are led by parents, Mad Science is run by the organization Mad Science of Baltimore, which is part of a national franchise. Dean Turner, a local magician who is not an Ilchester parent, teaches the magic program. Cecelia Redmond teaches Spanish and Sandy Duerr teaches drama. Both are Ilchester parents.