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Bryant Elementary School

A look at the newly built Bryant Elementary School.

Last summer, the Helena Family YMCA knew that after five years the 21st Century Grant funding that provided the basis for Bryant Elementary School's after-school program was set to expire. Now the YMCA's CEO David Oclander is looking to reinvent the program.

"It started in May when we learned immediately that 21st Century wouldn't be renewed," Oclander said. "We sat down with (school district superintendent) Tyler Ream and discussed what an after-school program should be."

They both realized that their visions for the school's program were similar. Ream said their aim is to provide a quality after-school program, and "we want all our kids to have the same opportunities." With this comes a structure to reduce the barrier of entry so that it's interest-based rather than income-based, explained Ream. 

Currently, all other elementary schools in Helena have fee-based School-Age Child Care (SACC) after-school programs. 

Ream called the expired 21st Century Grant for Bryant "a jump-off point for after-school programs."

"Knowing we don't have the grant, but the need is still there, we couldn't do it without them (YMCA)," Ream said. 

After several meetings with Ream, Oclander determined that the program needed to be more than an extension of the school day. YMCA family development director Meridith Antonetti said her goal with the program is to present students with opportunities they otherwise wouldn't have. Ream said "the reality is the school looks the same before and after 3 p.m." and noted a major goal was to find appropriate ways to use the space available. 

Oclander explained the program to have students "growing and learning something fundamental" and said it should be fun, engaging and active. With this in mind, Oclander decided it was important to focus on skills, character development and fitness. He began calling potential partners such as St. Peter's Health and Brand X, an international youth program. 

"These are elements we felt naturally fit with this," Oclander said. "We want to introduce youth to learning that would be interesting."

The decision to seek out potential partners drove the decision to give the after-school program "monthly themes that are career-related," he said. Examples Oclander gave are "health and wellness" as the first theme, starting in January, and an "engineering" theme in February. Oclander said the goal is to find community partners that do business in these spaces. 

"Maybe focus another month on coding," Oclander said. "In May, we are thinking about doing 'Montana Adventures' to expose them to organizations like Fish, Wildlife & Parks and Bike Montana." 

Oclander said they are also seeking grant funding for this program.

He plans to roll out the program starting in January and then go from there. There are many months left to fill and Oclander said he is actively seeking out more opportunities for programming. 

"It really does cost a lot to do quality after-school programs that aren't just a babysitting service," Oclander said. "Where youth with different socioeconomic standings diverge is with the opportunities provided." 

Keeping costs low for the parents is of utmost importance to Ream. His preference is always going to be low-cost or no-cost for after-school programming. Ream said this is because the district can always benefit more families at low cost. 

For Oclander, this reinventing of the Bryant program is just the beginning.

"What we would really like to do is use this as proof of principle," Oclander said. "If it works, we could expand it to other schools." 

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