GEORGETOWN — When the dismissal bell rang at Mary Miller Junior High School on Monday afternoon, Caleb Park did what most sixth-graders do after school — found himself a snack.
But after finishing his peanut butter and cracker sandwiches and juice box, he headed back to the classroom and opened his science book to a lesson on Alfred Wegener and the continental drift theory.
Caleb said he doesn't mind staying a couple of hours after school or coming in an hour early this year.
"I need a lot of help on my homework," he said, as he moved on to an English worksheet on simple subjects and predicates. "If I have a question, the teacher is right here."
Caleb is getting the extra help through an extended-day program called Panther Success. The program — which is free and open to all Mary Miller students — also offers enrichment classes, field trips and other activities.
"We certainly try to pull in the kids who are falling behind," said program coordinator Kimberly David of Project Success of Vermilion County, which runs the program and extended-day programs at other schools with funding from 21st Century Community Learning Center and Teen REACH grants and community support.
"But it's really designed for all students," David continued, adding there's also a monthly family component.
"I'm very excited to have it here," Principal Lisa Gocken said of the program, which kicked off last semester and ran through the summer. "It's already had a positive impact on student's grades," she said, adding it's also decreased behavior problems.
This is the first full year for the program. It operates from 7 to 8 a.m. Monday through Friday and 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, except on holidays and early-dismissal days. Bus transportation is available to take students home.
While it's voluntary, students who have good attendance and grades can earn rewards including roller skating, ice skating, bowling and pizza parties, and tickets to "buy" items at the Panther Success store.
Under the program, students work on their homework before school and after school during the first hour, said assistant site coordinator Mary Park, who's also a teacher. Teachers are there to help — and provide extra instruction, if needed — and make sure the work gets done.
Students who aren't finished can stay and work through the second hour, while those who are can move on to their elective class.
Park said a variety of electives will be offered throughout the year. The offerings are based on students' interests, as well as interests and talents that teachers want to share.
This month's offerings include a book club, a cooking club, sports and recreational activities and art projects. They also can participate in a hands-on service-learning curriculum based on the book "Every Monday Matters."
"It teaches them that everyone matters and that they can make a difference in their community," David said, adding students will be involved in several community-improvement projects.
On Monday, Caleb was one of 20 or so students who chose to attend Crypto Club, created by two University of Illinois-Chicago professors. Students will learn about cryptography and how to encrypt and crack secret messages.
While the activities — including Monday's lesson on making a cipher wheel and using a Caesar Cipher to decode messages — are engaging, teacher Mary Miller said it gives her a chance to reinforce math skills and get in a little history.
Each month, David said, students' families will be invited to the school to eat a meal and participate in an activity. "The more parents are involved in their kids' education, the more the kids are supported," she said.