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Clairton's CASTLE after-school program called best in state

| Monday, Sept. 9, 2013, 4:41 a.m.
Eighth-grade teacher and executive director of Clairton's After-School Teaching & Learning Experience Greg Spotti shares details about this year's CASTLE program with students, from left, Jaden McDougald, Helen Parrotte, C.J. Collier and Justin Davenport.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Eighth-grade teacher and executive director of Clairton's After-School Teaching & Learning Experience Greg Spotti shares details about this year's CASTLE program with students, from left, Jaden McDougald, Helen Parrotte, C.J. Collier and Justin Davenport.

Clairton students are preparing for their second year in a program that organizers rank among the best in Pennsylvania.

Clairton's After-School Teaching & Learning Experience – CASTLE – will begin Thursday for students in fifth through eighth grade.

Sponsored by the Consortium for Public Education and Clairton City School District, CASTLE couples core curriculum tutoring by certified teachers with innovative learning activities rooted in arts and technology.

“It gives students an experience like no other,” said the program's executive director Greg Spotti, an eighth-grade science teacher. “They're introduced to so many aspects of life that they may not otherwise have an opportunity to experience.”

Activities include hip-hop music production, radio and video technology, art, theater, bicycling and fishing.

“They take field trips to the museums and go hiking,” district public relations coordinator Alexis Trubiani said. “These are things that the average child from Clairton might not experience without the CASTLE program.”

Funded by a federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant administered through the state Department of Education, CASTLE meets the criteria of providing academic, artistic and cultural enrichment during non-school hours in a high-poverty or low-performing district. Funding is for three years, contingent upon the program's success.

“Our CASTLE program had the highest attendance in the state,” school board president Richard Livingston said.

Tricia Gennari, the consortium's senior director of leadership, confirmed participation by 97 percent of eligible students. She said participation in similar programs in other districts is approximately 30 percent.

“I came (to Clairton Education Center) for a meeting with a colleague of mine, and we couldn't get into the door because kids were grabbing us and asking, ‘Where's the sign-up sheet? Please tell me,” Gennari said. “I know that this year is going to top last year.”

An expanded CASTLE program will include a classroom highlighting science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM concepts. The room will house a 3-D printer and scanner, eight MacBook Pro computers, a self-charging laptop cart, four digital recorders, microphones, headphones, digital video cameras and a projector.

“Students will be able to work with partners and hone their skills in terms of STEM,” Gennari said.

Grow Pittsburgh and the Group Against Smog and Pollution have joined a group of sponsors that includes Hip-Hop on LOCK, MGR Foundation, the Program for Research and Outreach on Gender Equity in Society, Sense of Place Learning, Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE Lab, Carnegie Museum of Art and Futures Without Violence.

Students will build an edible schoolyard and learn about the science of agriculture. They will supplement other lessons with air quality-monitoring projects.

For the first time, younger siblings of CASTLE participants can enroll in a supplementary after-school program.

“In a district of our size and our demographics, we have a lot of older siblings who take care of younger siblings after school,” Livingston said. “We thought that could be a problem with attendance. So the YMCA is going to run a sibling program that is educationally based.”

The YMCA of McKeesport will build from a pilot summer program to conduct the sibling course for kids in kindergarten through fourth grade.

Livingston said the Consortium and YMCA answered a need for an enriching after-school program in Clairton, because of state budget cuts that put an economically distressed district at a further disadvantage.

“The governor cut funds, and through this grant, we were able to have an after-school program,” Livingston said. “It shows in our test scores that it has helped.”

Gennari said Consortium staff believes CASTLE is the best 21st Century program in the state.

“Anytime any of you talk to state officials, please mention it,” Gennari told the school board. “With the dwindling funds in Washington, there are cutbacks coming.”

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1956, or jvertullo@tribweb.com.

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