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There’s a new energy in Meyersdale Public Schools, where student engagement is on the rise. That’s because a new after-school program gives students real-world experiences that make learning more meaningful – and more fun.

IMG_1564Curriculum Director Tim Kretchman makes a clear connection: “They feel like they have a place in the school, that it is their school and they belong here because there’s something special here for them.”

Tim started the Community Connections program last school year in this Title 1 district, with three goals: help students develop hobbies and career interests, connect students with their community in meaningful ways, and let students have some fun. On all counts, it’s working.

For two hours after school, kids in 2nd through 8th grade get to learn all sorts of things that they may otherwise never experience. So far, classes include sewing, cooking, gardening, and martial arts. They’ve learned about the local wilderness and wildlife. A Somerset photographer showed students how to work cameras and take great pictures. An international food company sent samples of food from all over the world for students to try out, accompanied by short lessons on other cultures. All of these, experiences that bring their classroom subjects to life.

As Tim explains, “They have become more engaged in conversations as topics they’ve covered pop up in their various classes.  For example, some students who participated in the greenhouse activities earlier in the year became more engaged in their science class as they participated in a unit related to plants.”

They aren’t just learning new skills, they’re building relationships with their community. The classes are taught by local volunteers who are experts in their hobbies or professions, so  students are meeting adults from outside the school who care about them. This helps everyone involved build stronger community bonds.

Students also learn essential organizational and time management skills, since the program gives them designated time for homework, with help if they need it. They’re reaping the benefits of coming to class prepared.

The program got up and running with a grant from the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies for just over $1,400, plus $6,000 from the school district. Kretchman used the data from that first program to win a highly competitive federal Title 1 grant for $50,000. Now the program runs twice a week, for three 6-week sessions a year. That means more help for more kids, more often.

CFA Executive Director Mike Kane says Community Connections is right in line with CFA’s – and it’s donors’ – mission: “We’re supporting programs that help the community in a variety of long-lasting ways. That’s what we see here. Meyersdale Public Schools is creating better learners with deeper ties to their hometown. They’re investing community members in the local schools. They’re building a stronger community by binding everyone to each others’ successes. And they’ve leveraged seed money into major funding, so the program can grow.”

Right now, Community Connections serves about 60 children, out of the district’s 850 students. Administrators hand-select participants, according to which of the students will benefit most from it. In a district with dwindling population and shrinking resources, a program like this may be the only exposure some students have to non-curricular, horizon-expanding activities. Life-learning beyond measure, that these students will carry with them long after they leave the classroom.

Community Connections is looking for volunteer professionals or hobbyists. If you have a special skill you’d like to share with Meyersdale students, contact Tim Kretchman at

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