Extracurriculars Build Lifelong Passions

DC Schools Prioritize Activities and Clubs As Critical to Learning

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Elizabeth Nelson, long-time volunteer at Maury Elementary (1250 Constitution Ave. NE), recounts an incident from a trip she took with Maury’s hiking club. In fall of 2020 students met outside the playground at the school and made the nearly two-mile trek to Kingman Island, where they would begin the nature portion of their hike.

“One of my fondest memories is of these two little girls running across Kingman Island—which is not exactly Yosemite,” Nelson said. “They were screaming, ‘We’re free-eee! We’re free-eee! We’re free in the wild!’ over and over again. And they really needed that.”

District schools provide a wide variety of extracurricular activities during and after regular classroom hours. Some are led by staff, often with volunteers. School representatives say that while many are directly linked to academic offerings, all of the various sports, clubs and activities support the type of exploratory learning needed to become a well-rounded adult.

Two Prong Extracurriculars
Maury offers a two-prong extracurricular menu. Polite Piggy’s, a daycare center where Nelson volunteers, provides after-school and day-off care for several District schools, including Maury, Tyler, School Within A School and Amidon Bowen. They provide a diverse menu of specials. from Japanese cooking class to Lego building, knitting and science. The program is billed on a sliding scale based on household income from $0-400 monthly. Most of the options are free; students enrolled in aftercare just need to opt in.

The hiking club was initially established under the auspices of Polite Piggy’s to give students additional outdoor play time while the school was housed in mobile units at Eliot-Hine Middle School in 2018. But when the pandemic arrived, it began to fill an additional need: for kids to get outside, socialize and hang out with friends.

While Polite Piggy’s manages a host of activities and clubs, staff at Maury also support another list of activities, including the school sports teams, a lunch reading club, Girls on the Run, basketball and cheerleading as well as yearbook and this year’s new school newspaper, the Maury News, produced by students and sent home monthly inside students’ homework folders.

Grade 4 student Lydia Lyons participates in Homework Club at Polite Piggy’s but is also one of the editors of the school paper. It was born on the playground while Lyons and her friend, Eliana Holdod, were talking at recess.

“We were sharing news and we realized we really didn’t know a lot of things that were happening,” Lyons said. “Eliana decided maybe we should have a newspaper so that kids could know what’s going on, participate and have something to do.”

So together with another friend, Holdod and Lyons approached school principal Helena Payne-Chauvenet with the idea. Payne-Chauvenet, a former journalist herself, was quick to approve and now supervises the club.

Richard Wright American Sign Language instructor, Mr. Penn, is assisting a student with an online assignment from virtual ASL teacher, Mrs. Robinson.

Building A School’s Emotional Fabric
Richard Wright Public Charter School for Journalism and Media Arts (475 School St. SW) offers more than 30 different extracurricular activities, ranging from a news team to one of the only two school-based Rotary Clubs in the District to modeling, step dance, electronic gaming and sports such as football and tennis. Outreach Director Helen Compton-Harris estimates that about half of Richard Wright’s students participate in one or more clubs.

One of the explanations for this high interest could lie in the origin of the clubs. All activities at Richard Wright originate with the students. For instance, this year the school established a tennis team after several scholars expressed interest in learning to play. The video gaming club originated from student’s desire to socialize as they played.

Richard Wright sees extracurriculars as part of the curriculum, said Compton-Harris. “These kind of clubs and sports are essential to our culture and learning new skills, for students to broaden their horizons,” she said.

The public charter school characterizes its mission as transforming students in grades 8 to 12 into well-versed media contributors with a curriculum focused on strong writing skills and vocabulary. But extracurriculars are part of that, the Outreach Director said. They allow students to sample every form of the media they are being trained to create. “All of these clubs are really related to our mission,” said Compton-Harris.

Not only are extracurriculars a low-stress environment in which to learn, they build social skills and teamwork and are a safe after-school environment.

“Academics are first and foremost, but to really have a great climate at your school you have to get to know who the students are,” Compton Harris said. “It really builds the emotional fabric of the school.”

Embracing and Honoring the Individual
As at Richard Wright, clubs at The Field School (2301 Foxhall Rd. NW) are student-led. But at the small, private school serving grades 6 to 12, that doesn’t just mean the students choose the topics: they also run the club meetings.

In pre-COVID times, the school hosted a clubs fair. A student could get up and speak for a minute on what their club would be like. Then students would have the opportunity to sign up. Field parent Helen Cymrot said staff see the clubs as an opportunity for student leadership.

“I think [staff] try and support kids to be leaders in that context, and so that means different things depending on the club,” she said. For some clubs, adds her daughter Zoe, a ninth grader at Field, a teacher is a co-leader. In others, teachers take attendance and watch over the class.

Students can choose from over 40 student-designed clubs. That’s all in addition to the 58 teacher-led electives offered as part of the curriculum, which explore the diverse passions of individual teachers on subjects from 20th Century African American Comedy to bookmaking and the history of subjects from the Craft Arts of Appalachia to Rock and Roll. Even with these, the goal is exploration over grading, Zoe said. “They’re all pass-fail; you just have to go to class.”

The small private school serves about 380 students in grades 6 to 12. Small classes allow staff to focus on the individual while emphasizing community. Clubs contribute to that, said Helen Cymrot.

“Field tries to embrace and honor the whole individual and not just keep kids in the little pigeon holes of the math, science kind of traditional academic offerings,” she said. Clubs have always been popular, Cypriot said, “because the kids come up with their own crazy ideas and then get to lead class every week.”

Evidence that the Field sees these extra clubs as part of their overall philosophy of learning is evident by the fact that time is allocated for them during the school day. Between the first and second class 45 minutes are set aside daily for electives and clubs.

Zoe chose two electives and two clubs: American Sign Language (ASL) and Arts and Crafts Studio, as well as History of Project Runway (a history of fashion elective) and the Craft Arts of Appalachia. There are clubs focused on Stringband but also karaoke, acting and improv as well as gardening, competitive business, bad movies and conlangs (languages created as a work of fiction) as well as affinity clubs around sexual, gender and racial identities.

Extracurriculars —and electives—at The Field celebrate the passion for learning shared by both teachers and students, Helen Cymrot said. But they also contribute to making school a joyful place for kids.

“It’s the idea that everything doesn’t have to be strenuous and hardcore and painful,” Cymrot said. “It’s the idea that learning can be joyful and engaging and exciting.”