New After-School Program Unveiled for Pierson Middle-High School

The main entrance to Pierson Middle-High School.
The main entrance to Pierson Middle-High School.

By Christine Sampson

A proposal is on the table to replace the Sag Harbor School District’s Youth Advocacy and Resource Development program, or YARD, with a new, supervised version offering students options for recreation, relaxation, study time and physical activity, but when it was unveiled during Monday’s school board meeting, it was not without criticism.

Dubbed “PAS,” for “Pierson After School,” the program would be based in the cafeteria and rely on three additional locations as well: the library — where the existing Homework Club would be incorporated into the after-school program — plus a sixth-grade classroom and an outdoor or fitness-related location, such as the middle school gym, workout room or outside the back of the school after the new sod field has been completed.

Several “teacher leaders” would supervise students or lead activities in those locations, with one teacher appointed as the lead teacher at “home base,” which would be the cafeteria. Students would sign in and out at that location and receive passes to go to the other places, so the staff could more easily track the students’ whereabouts while at the PAS program. Also in the cafeteria, couches, the foosball table and video games would be brought in and students would have access to vending machines full of snacks to create a lounge-type atmosphere. In the sixth-grade classroom space, students would engage in rotating, planned activities, such as arts and crafts, team-building activities, board games, mindfulness practices or activities in the realm of “STEAM,” which stands for “science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.”

The PAS program would replace YARD, which was a largely unsupervised recreational program where students could drop in and chill out, borrow sports equipment to go outside, play games in a classroom decked out like a lounge or do their homework. Like YARD, the PAS program would go until 5:30 p.m. The director of YARD, Debbie Skinner, retired in June after running that program for 18 years, prompting school officials to re-evaluate the program even as some in the school and community lobbied for its preservation.

“We did meet with seven or eight students that were regulars in the YARD program,” Pierson Middle School assistant principal Brittany Miaritis, who led the charge in developing the proposal, said Monday. “They gave us a laundry list of their wants and needs, and we tried to hit all of them…. We also looked at 10 other school districts and interviewed them.”

The program seemed to be well-received by the school board, with board member Chris Tice saying, “I think this is a much more well-rounded, comprehensive after-school program than we have had.”

However, it was the price tag of PAS that emerged as the sticking point. A specific cost estimate was not released during the meeting; district officials could only guess at its possible expense.

The YARD program cost the district around $30,000, and received supplemental funding from government grants and materials from a local non-profit organization, the Youth Resource Center. The future of those contributions is unclear. However, Ms. Miaritis projected the program would have a “flat cost,” because the PAS program would likely absorb some of the existing middle school clubs that carry advisors’ stipends.

School business administrator Jennifer Buscemi disagreed, saying, “I don’t think what Brittany is describing is going to cost us $30,000, so there will probably be a net savings there.”

And Pierson Middle-High School principal Jeff Nichols disputed both of those estimates, saying he thinks the program would be more expensive than the YARD program was. He said an early look at the program would have more staff in place than YARD had, and those teachers must be paid at Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) contractual stipend rates, which would push the program over the district’s $30,000 budget.

“Even with the expected costs, I think it is a reasonable burden to take on if the goal is to have a more well-rounded, structured program,” Mr. Nichols said. “Remember, the old program was one room with one person and one assistant, and the kids were sort of sent out from there, without supervision, which was the downside to the program…. Now, with a full-fledged after school program, it’s a different ballgame.”

In an email Tuesday, school board president Diana Kolhoff said it’s clear Ms. Miaritis and her colleagues put a lot of thought into redeveloping the after-school program. She said she thought the use of a focus group of students was “an effective way to get feedback and in turn meet the needs of our diverse student body.”

“It is taking shape nicely,” Ms. Kolhoff said. “…I think the new after-school program will be an improvement in the level of accountability for our students’ whereabouts, as well as providing more structured opportunities for students to be engaged with one another in a positive way. We are looking forward to the next update as it begins to take shape and the details are fleshed out.”