The purple playground ball is pitched gently.
Thomas Perlas wallops it, his skinny, 6-year-old leg swinging in a wiggling flail. The ball heads to left field where Bob Khan, the adult playing shortstop, pitcher and base coach, heads off in hot pursuit.
Everybody else yells, “RUN!” at Thomas, and he does. Except no one had told him where to run, so he runs after Khan.
Welcome to the second week of the Jackson Elementary School branch of the Boys & Girls Club of Janesville, where a small group of students in first through fifth grades has already bonded through stickers, reading, tire swings and kickball. Well, not kickball exactly, but some version of the game where sometimes two people play first base and no one remembers to back up when fifth-grader Lacy Dann is up.
This is the first school-based site for the Boys & Girls Club, but the organization hopes to expand to other schools next year, said Samantha Soddy, site supervisor and assistant manager at the downtown club.
The club now buses students from several elementary schools to its downtown location. It used to bus children in from Jackson, but busing is expensive, and the club has reached capacity, said Boys & Girls Club Executive Director Sara Stinski.
Given its location on the far south side of town, Jackson seemed the perfect place to start a satellite branch, Stinski said. Aside from cutting back on busing expenses, Stinski notes it was time for the Janesville club to take steps toward expansion.
“We work with other clubs and keep in close contact with them,” she said. “The club in Fond du Lac, which is a city that is comparable (in size) with Janesville, serves thousands of kids.”
Janesville’s club serves hundreds.
The time between the end of the school day and when parents return home from work can be lonely, boring and sometimes scary for kids.
Nationally, about 25% of kids have no place to go after school. In Janesville, about 74% of club members qualify for free and reduced lunch, which is often used as a measure of poverty. In addition, about 41% of club members come from single-parent homes, according to the club’s website.
The club’s activities and schedule will be the same at Jackson as it is at the downtown location.
The first part of the afternoon is dedicated to supervised free time and offers kids a chance to run off the squirrelies on the playground or in the gym. Next comes “Power Hour,” the time for homework help and reading work. At the end of the day, kids participate in one of several nationally developed programs in areas such as art, music, fitness, STEM, geography or volunteering/community service.
This year, the Janesville club is working closely with the Janesville School District to address child literacy issues, Stinski said.
“Superintendent Steve Pophal comes from a district that worked closely with the Boys & Girls Club, so he was on board,” she said.
One of the district’s goals is to have all third-grade students reading at grade level by the end of their third-grade years. To do that, schools have to address summertime learning gaps and find ways to help kids who already are at a disadvantage.
Stinski is working with a recently retired Janesville School District academic learning coach to design a targeted reading program for kids. Unfortunately, not all reading problems are the same, as some kids might have trouble with basic vocabulary and others might struggle to absorb information and draw conclusions.
So far, things are going well at Jackson. In the first two weeks of the new club program, eight kids have signed up to join, Soddy said.
“(Principal) Kristen Moisson said we would be surprised how quickly we would get to 30 students,” she said.
Moisson said she is delighted her school was chosen as the club’s first remote site. The school used to have a community learning program that provided after-school activities, and she believes such programs provide kids with valuable academic and social support.
And they’re also a place where they are safe—something that helps parents feel better, too.