When Covid 19 closed schools this past spring, the Amherst Middle School VELA After School program quickly moved to provide the program remotely to support students and the school community. That support, and the educational and fun activities that the VELA program provides, have all continued into the Fall with homework assistance and a variety of choices for continued group learning and activities.
Nancita Alejandro, site coordinator of the Amherst Middle School VELA Program, smiles as she shares details about plans for the upcoming Breaking Bread event for participants and their families. “Students will be given the space to share some of the positive events in their lives, talk about what they are grateful for, eat food and break bread with each other.” During VELA’s weekly Food Farming & Fun class, a partnership with Brookfield Farms of Amherst, students are provided with farm fresh ingredients and encouraged to explore different foods and share recipes to be made by each student in their home. Some will be introduced to food that is unfamiliar to them, such as sorullitos (a Puerto Rican cornmeal and cheese fritter). The students come together to talk about how their cooking went, and these activities help the students share about culture and learn from each other in a fun way.
The VELA (from the South African language Xhosa meaning rising up, shine light upon) program begins as the school day ends, and offers many of the same activities remotely that were offered in person. Students gather with facilitators virtually at 2:45, connecting for homework, and then move to scheduled activities four days a week. The 2:45 gathering time has become important for many students, who will join up for the opening even if something keeps them from being with the group for the rest of the afternoon’s activities. “They want to check in, see us, stay connected,” says Nancita.
Staying connected is clearly important to both the students and the facilitators, who put together a bag or box of supplies weekly for each student. Students and their families pick up the supplies, or if needed, the supplies are delivered to the student’s home. This week’s bag, Nancita shares, will have the components for the Breaking Bread event, including recipe items for the students to create a special part of the meal. As with the daily 2:45 gathering, the weekly pick up or drop off allows the VELA facilitators to engage with the students and with their families to quickly check in, see how things are going and help to keep the sense of community strong.
VELA offers a variety of activities – in the Dance class option, students recently learned the Thriller dance, and some were surprised that older family members were very familiar with both the song and the dance steps! Songwriting is popular, with students choosing a beat to write to, writing lyrics, and recording it to share. During the VELA Radio class, students create playlists and PSA’s about subjects that are important to them such as climate change & COVID-19. The Mind Hacks program, taught by an Amherst College student, combines psychology and optical illusions while teaching memory tricks. There is an Anime class, and RealTalk, which grew out of the need for the students to work on their communications and listening skills. The work can also be asynchronous. For Art Class, students made their own self portraits in the style of Tim Burton, and then came together to share their finished creations.
Marta Guevera, Director of Student and Family Engagement for the district and liaison for Vela and Amherst Middle School, says that the VELA program has created a trusted community at the school, providing strategies for listening, and creating support during normal as well as these more stressful times. “Nancita is an all around rock star. She is creative and engaging with the students,” said Marta. “She does incredible work with non traditional students as well, focusing on engagement, enrichment and well-being.”
The Amherst Middle School program is part of the Collaborative for Educational Services 21st Century After School Program, and it has just been awarded Exemplary status from the state. For 21st Century Learning Programs, Exemplary status is a highly competitive award which ensures that the program will continue for at least another three years. Great news for the students, many of whom continue to stay connected by volunteering with the program once they reach high school.
Amherst Middle School students may join the VELA program at any time. Students register ahead of time and sign up for a minimum of three days attendance weekly. More information about the VELA program and registering can be found at http://www.arps.org/district/afterschool-care-programs/vela