By Christine Sampson
Debbie Skinner’s upcoming retirement has the potential to usher in a new era for both her personal life and the drop-in, after-school program at Pierson Middle-High School she has run for 18 years.
Ms. Skinner, the director of the Youth Advocacy and Resource Development program, or YARD, will retire in June.
“I’m looking forward to getting tickets to a Yankees game and seeing my kids,” she said in a recent interview. “I want to have a little more time to exercise and ride my bicycle and travel. I’m looking forward to a lot of things, like the next time it snows and I don’t have to dig my way out to the car.”
She will also miss the students, who she said “have been sweet.”
“They’re the ones that say ‘please don’t go,’” Ms. Skinner said. “I think most of the parents and adults appreciate that I’ve done this for a very long time and have sent me their best wishes.”
Janet Grossman, the director of the Youth Resource Center, which provides materials and other types of support for YARD, said Wednesday Ms. Skinner “has kept it going all these years and it has been so important to all these young people.”
“She is an absolutely dependable, devoted employee of the district, and she is absolutely devoted to the kids,” Ms. Grossman said. “She helps solve problems for them. She has been really wonderful.”
In the weeks following her retirement announcement last month, Pierson principal Jeff Nichols asked the Pierson Middle School assistant principal, Brittany Miaritis, to do some research into options for after-school programs. Her presentation to the school board on Monday, and Mr. Nichols’s subsequent recommendations, signaled the possible end of the YARD program in its current form.
They pitched to the school board an expansion of the district’s current Homework Club that would extend its hours from a 3:30 p.m. end time to 4:30 p.m., and add a recreation piece and more staffing. It would be branded with a name “cooler than Homework Club,” Ms. Miaritis said.
“This is what we are hoping to do without causing too much disturbance to our students but also supporting our students with what they need,” she said.
“The beauty of the drop-in program is that it’s unstructured,” Mr. Nichols added. “They can go in and just hang. The downside is that it is unstructured, and that invites some issues.”
A debate ensued over the merits of the YARD program, which some say allows students more freedom in recreation, versus the more structured club the Pierson administrators had thought up.
“If the decision is what we’ve presented is not sufficient and we want to organize a drop-in program, my recommendation is that the drop-in program has more activities, and contracting with an outside organization to provide it would be my recommendation,” Mr. Nichols said.
In April, Ms. Grossman said as many as 80 students per day had been using the after-school program through February. But on Monday, Mr. Nichols disputed that figure, saying, “There’s a core group of kids who spend a lot of time there, five to 10 who spend more than 40 minutes, and there are kids who pop in for less than a minute.”
The YARD program is housed in a homey lower-level room toward the back of the school, with worn-in couches, a pool table and a foosball table, games and computers, sports equipment for the students to take outside and more.
According to school business administrator Jennifer Buscemi, the YARD program cost the district $30,975 this year and $23,114 last year. She said the difference was fewer donations and less grant funding coming in this year. The 2017-18 budget proposal contains $30,000 for the YARD program, but administrators noted Monday that it could be redirected toward another purpose.
Ms. Grossman said she thinks “kids are going to be hurt immeasurably” if YARD is changed or axed. “It’s a safe place after school and they really need it,” she said.
Reached by phone on Wednesday, Ms. Skinner, who had not been aware of the new proposal to replace YARD, said she thinks whatever the school district comes up with “will be great.”
“Just as long as they provide something for the kids,” she said. “That’s the most important thing.”