WESS After-school Programs Thrive Online


“I Heart Manhattan Youth” by LisaBPhoto is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Elizabeth Alton

After-school programming is an essential extension on the main school day for both working parents and students. These programs provide a place for working parents to ensure their kids safety before they can pick them up, and for students they’re a chance to engage in their hobbies and with peers.

The after-school program here at WESS is run by Manhattan Youth, a Manhattan based organization that provides programming to schools ranging from Battery Park to Harlem. Because they receive funding from the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), their programs are free for students.

For the past four years Manhattan Youth has been working with the WESS community to craft the optimal extracurricular program, and even as students are remote, they’re still in operation. That said, the classes look very different than they did a year ago. For one, they’re remote, and as a result, less students are participating. Before, the program used to run two periods each with five to six classes simultaneously running. Now they normally only have one period that has around three classes. 

The program director at WESS for the past four years, Kara Bhatti, started out as a teaching assistant (TA) at another Manhattan Youth school. She explained that the decision to restructure the programs offerings was a direct result of the changing circumstances.

“You guys are in front of computers for the whole day and to think that anybody would want to do afterschool from 3:30 to 5:30, it just seems like too much,” Bhatti said. “I ended up cutting that just so I could make sure that [students] are happy, but also so my teachers don’t feel overwhelmed by the lack of students.”

Despite the fact that there are less students in the program overall, Bhatti has seen students, especially those who were shyer in person, thrive in a remote environment. She has found that they were quicker to open up in the more intimate space that a remote class can provide.

“There are smaller classes online and [TAs] often tell me how intimate it is,” Bhatti said. “In our creative writing and other classes we do have where students do have to share out, it just feels like a safer space because on zoom only one person can talk at a time so nobody is interrupting each other.”

Along with a more intimate environment, Manhattan Youth Programs also provide students with an element of choice that can be hard to find in the regular school day, and a chance for students to get away from everything else that’s going on in their lives. After all, the program has always been optional, which ensures that for the most part everyone that is there is choosing to be. Bhatti has seen the result of this in some of the online classes.

 “There’s a class called current events it’s so small, but those kids just love that class because it’s a place where they can go and have a conversation about what’s going on, especially nowadays with politics, with COVID, with all of these different things that have been happening,” Bhatti said.

And despite all of the changes, the program has been undeniably successful.

“The students that have been coming since September have stayed on, so I think that’s a testament to how hard my TAs work. I know it’s so hard for them to do this stuff online and… I just give them so much credit because I don’t know how I would even do that. I’m so proud of them.”

Eighth grader Laith Esa took classes in person last year and continues to participate online. One of her favorite classes is the Pokemon class.

“It’s very interactive, and it’s very fun and we all talk about one of our favorite things, which is Pokemon. Now there’s a lot less people and you can do more activities. Also since we’re online we have more freedom… It’s easier and harder at the same time, like you cannot have in person help, but you have someone who is good at computers could help you a lot.”

Eighth grader Julien Francis is currently taking current events, creative writing, and debate. Before COVID he did track and field at WESS. While there are things that he has found to be harder online, like asking questions remotely, Francis has found overall experience to be a great experience to work with his peers remotely.

“I guess an example of one reason I like it is because of how we adapt to new situations,” Francis said. “Like during debate we have our different arguments, and then if one of them gets rebutted we usually text each other… during the debate or on a google doc so we’re able to communicate and give each other points, so I think that one thing that’s really cool about remote [classes] the many ways we communicate with one another.”

While the remote experience has been challenging and different, Bhatti has plans for when we do eventually go back in person.

“I feel like there’s going to be an emphasis on having students handwriting more, and just being in each other’s environments,” Bhatti said. “I feel like it just would make sense if we’re going from this extended period of not talking or not being with each other, we’re going to want to do a lot more once we get back. I’m looking forward to adding more art classes, and we have some excellent teachers that want to be on board with that so I’m just looking forward to that.”