Just the setup itself was one heckuva roundup.
More than 180 children in LINC’s Caring Communities after-school program at Grandview’s Meadowmere Elementary queued up in appointed lines in the cafeteria like freshly fueled rail cars.
To get here, they’d deposited their backpacks, marched through bathrooms and hand-washing stations, passed through the food line and had dinner — ready now for their blue-shirted LINC “engineers” to lead them to their eagerly anticipated destinations.
Right on schedule at 4:30 p.m. as if a steam whistle had blasted them into motion.
Today their separate lines were dispatching to Boy Scouts, fitness and dance, reading classes and art. Other days, at Meadowmere and at 43 other LINC sites across five Missouri school districts, their choices might include tennis lessons, STEM classes, Girl Scouts, drill teams, e-sports and chess.
That’s more than 7,600 children from the Kansas City, Hickman Mills, Center, North Kansas City and Grandview school districts, pulling this off every full school day.
The list of partners — like Kansas City Young Audiences, Urban TEC, Local Legends Gaming, and Nash Jem Elite All-Stars — continues to grow.
And there’s an upshot for families, as one mother would learn when she approached Meadowmere’s after-school operation to ask about joining its new Girl Scout troop.
All of LINC’s programming, including the scout troop, as well as LINC’s reliable safe-keeping of children, would be opened to her family if she simply enrolled her daughter, LINC site coordinator Adrian Wilson told her.
“But how much does it cost?” she asked.
Said Wilson: “It’s free.”
Fun, cool, strong . . . and safe
For 25 years LINC has been leveraging state and federal dollars to build Caring Communities sites with its partner school districts that strengthen children and empower families.
Families are flocking to before- and after-school programs, said Meadowmere Principal Stephen Fielder, “because they need it.”
The pressures on families are growing, said Center School District Indian Creek Elementary Principal Angela Price.
“Family structure and job requirements have changed,” she said.
Many families move from apartment to apartment and job to job, said Pitcher Elementary Principal Karol Howard in Kansas City Public Schools.
Parents who may have only fleeting chances to connect to their child’s school by day get new opportunities when after-school programs bring them in, Howard said.
“LINC provides stability,” she said. “It is an excellent liaison. It is a safe place.”
“A point of pride for me,” said Hickman Mills School District Superintendent Yolanda Cargile, “is knowing that the LINC team will always focus on creating the best learning spaces for our children.”
This month, LINC school sites are celebrating the role of Caring Communities in their neighborhoods with their annual Lights On Afterschool festivals. Children will be showing off their work as the schools throw unique parties.
Meadowmere is having an ethnic festival, Wilson said, celebrating the cultural diversity of its families. And this year many families are helping supply special foods and adding their own cultural flare to the music and dancing.
“The Lights On program is so valuable,” Fielder, the Meadowmere principal, said. “It helps us get families used to having fun, cool, strong activities they can be a part of.”
The power of ‘free’
The benefits reach even farther.
LINC’s organization expands the reach of the state’s dollars, bringing families and children into after-school programs at a savings of more than $3.7 million from what it would cost the state if it distributed subsidies to qualifying low-income families on its own.
The average family, nationwide, pays some $2,400 a year on before- and after-school care, according to the Afterschool Alliance’s report of national data. Even low-income families on average pay $1,700 a year.
By delivering its program free to its partner schools, LINC brings more families into after-school programs, strengthening the gains that schools — and their communities — enjoy nationwide.
Research shows that high-quality after-school programs can lead to increased attendance, improved behavior and improved grades, reports the Afterschool Alliance.
After-school programs help parents keep jobs and help shield children from drugs and alcohol and make them less likely to become teen parents or be characterized as obese.
Considering that businesses lose up to $300 billion a year in lost productivity in parents’ missed work days, and that children in after-school programs have shown to be more likely to stay in school, graduate, earn more and stay out of the penal system, every dollar invested in after-school programs saves up to $9 in long-range benefits.
The magic inside
Tasia Cannon and Zoe Ray — both 8 years old — get the picture.
Many of the “fun things” at the new LINC after-school program and Indian Creek Elementary in the Center School District are working their brains, Tasia knows.
She sends her hands in orbit around her head, knowing the magic inside, saying that the homework help and math work “is helping us grow our minds like a plant, and grow inside.”
“LINC,” Zoe says, “is my inspiration.”
Elijah McKinzie, 8, loves the program at Meadowmere, he said, knowing as well that he’d otherwise be whiling away the afternoon in his mother’s hair salon.
“He’d be sitting with me,” his mother, Latricia Carter, said.
It’s much better, she said, for Elijah to be here, “engaged with other children, having fun and doing activities.”
Many parents work long hours, like Ciarra King and her husband, whose 7-year-old daughter MaKenzie finished another day at Meadowmere.
“I know where she is after school and in the morning,” King said. “LINC reinforces the things that I teach her at home as to playing and sharing and being a responsible kid.”
Parenting is hard enough as it is without having to worry about those out-of-school hours, Cameron Green said as he picked up 10-year-old Jayden.
“I can trust the LINC staff to take care of our son,” he said.
The light at the end of the day
Craig Merkerson, the principal of Millennium at Santa Fe Elementary School in Hickman Mills, appreciates good collaboration.
He likes it that LINC’s site coordinator at Millennium, Jene Counts, often arrives ahead of the after-school time and circulates among the classroom teachers, picking up on things LINC’s staff can carry on.
LINC can be that extra connection, blending lessons and themes, and bringing more parents into the school.
“We want LINC definitely to be an extension of our school day,” he said.
Counts, like many of LINC’s site coordinators, comes from a family of educators.
The love of “engaging with families and students . . . is ingrained in me,” Counts said.
Marissa Cage is aiming for the same neighborhood and school staff connections as she leads LINC’s newest site, opened this school year at Indian Creek Elementary School in the Center School District.
Cage and her staff are teaming up with Indian Creek’s principal, teachers, parents and children, “working alongside them to build community programming.”
Trusting partnerships are hard-earned, said Andrew Smith, LINC’s site coordinator at Pitcher Elementary School.
It means assuring the 120 children in his program are safe, he said.
“That’s why we fill out the incident reports. That’s why we have the walkie-talkies,” he said. “At the end of the day we want to be accountable. LINC staff is going to be consistent.”
It means valuing relationships and giving children time with line staff like Pitcher’s Kimberly Lee, who says she urges students to write “silly stories” for her.
“I want them to use their imagination,” Lee said. “I want to make it fun. I want them to open doors they thought they’d never open up.”
Trust means being mindful of that child who’s there moment to moment to moment.
“Every interaction influences kids,” said LINC staff member Avaa Lofton at Meadowmere. “At LINC we pay attention to that. I’ve learned patience. I’ve learned about listening.”
That’s how LINC’s young team grows, said Bennie Avery. She is a retired LINC site coordinator who has continued on with LINC, working on the line staff at Meadowmere.
“LINC’s training prepares the young staff for life,” Avery said. “We become a family. It’s not a job. It becomes a mission.”
As 6 p.m. comes around, parents walk in the doors in the slanting rays of the late day’s sun, to find Wilson there with his Meadowmere staff, sending their children back to them.
You feel lucky, Wilson said. You feel blessed.
“That is the joy that fills me every day,” he said. “To be able to give back what was given to me.”
By Joe Robertson, LINC writer