Quaker Valley students extend their school day — willingly

Bobby Cherry
| Thursday, April 17, 2014, 2:18 p.m.

A group of Quaker Valley middle and high school students begins to prepare for two hours of classes that have no grades or pressure, just as the regular school day is ending.

Through the after-school program Studio Life, 30 to 50 students regularly take part in four visual art, philosophy and service classes. A fifth class is expected to be added.

Middle school teacher Jeff Evancho started the program, now in its sixth year, through his graduate work to study the impact of art.

“As that happened, I learned about voluntary education,” he said. Students chose to extend their school days and “in doing so, the work they were doing was more rigorous and detailed. It was stronger than the work that the same students were doing in my classes.”

Some high school students act as mentors, and they and a few teachers lead the program.

“High school and middle school students don't ever get to really have interaction with each other, and there were some cool things happening when they socialize,” Evancho said. “They started building bonds.

“When a high school student teaches a middle school student, (the middle school student) would take them more seriously than they would take us.”

In his visual art studio class, students think critically about art, he said.

Mentors Gia Veltre and Max Nungesser say the program has allowed them to hone their passion and skills.

“As a student, you were the one asking the questions and you were more unsure of what you were doing,” said Veltre, a sophomore. “As a mentor, there is more confidence in what you're doing.”

The two worked on a piece of art that represents the purpose of education and shows struggles that students face, Veltre said.

Torn-out book pages represent “information that is being pounded into your head and that you're supposed to be assessed on, something that's old information and not something that offers new experiences that you can get from creating,” she said.

A silkscreened quote from “The Catcher In The Rye” placed on top of the pages and of an image of a woman depict the relationship the story's Holden Caufield has to the education system, Veltre said.

“The whole purpose behind the book was that he dropped out of all of these schools, none of them were helping him and he's wandering around New York City,” she said.

In Amy Keller's exploring art course, students discuss ideas within art.

Sophomore Maddi Durbin said that class, along with a philosophy course taught by high school teacher Kelly McGrath, gave her a chance to learn more about favorite topics.

“It makes me think about issues that I care about, instead of just passively going to school and going home and doing homework,” she said. “It's made me think about ways I could change school to make it better.”

Durbin said she doesn't consider Studio Life as an addition to the school day. “It's more social, and you can express yourself more openly than you can in school,” she said.

Keller said teachers have learned new ways to instruct students through the program.

“It's allowed me permission to give more of a voice to students and allow them to have more thinking,” she said. “If I were to teach this course again during the school day, I would do it very, very differently.”

Finding the right teachers has helped to make the program a success, Evancho said.

“The teachers we look for are the most passionate teachers,” he said, adding that teachers identified are encouraged to create a “dream course” free of education mandates. “We allow the students to tell us who would be the best teachers for these types of courses.”

For Evancho, funding has been a challenge. Money used to buy food and supplies for the program comes from donations and grants from residents, businesses and nonprofit groups.

He plans to expand the program to other school districts. One Studio Life course also is offered at Ambridge Area High School.

“We're basically taking a charter (school) philosophy and expanding it into a different way that's not threatening to the surrounding communities, but partners with them instead of pillaging them and taking their resources,” he said.

Bobby Cherry is an associate editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-324-1408 or rcherry@tribweb.com.

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