Tackling 'the Friday question'

Billy Brees enjoys a day of sledding at the Boys & Girls Club of the Bighorns. The club is one of a few community organizations planning to offer programming on the Johnson County School District's early release Friday.

It’s been one of the unspoken questions since the Johnson County School District first approved a 2020-21 calendar with an early release on Fridays: Where exactly are the kids going to go after school?

The school district and a variety of community organizations – from the Boys & Girls Club of the Bighorns to the Johnson County YMCA and Johnson County Library – are still working out the detailed answers to that question, according to district teacher and coach Rob Hammond. But it is clear that local kids should have plenty of options to choose from once the school bell rings at 1 p.m. on Friday.

“In our meeting, Tim Miner with the YMCA kept bringing up the term of a ‘youth alliance’ between the schools and all the community organizations that serve the kids,” said Hammond, a member of the school district’s calendar committee. “I think we came out of our initial meeting with Tim and Scott (Musselman, director of operations for the Boy & Girls Club of the Bighorns) interested in working together to ensure opportunities are available for our students on Fridays.”

Details of just what this youth alliance could look like are still fuzzy, according to Miner and Musselman. But they both have some general ideas of what sorts of programs they would like to offer for students once they are dismissed from school.

YMCA CEO Miner said that he was interested in offering scaled-down versions of the organization’s Camp 307 program, which gives upper elementary and middle school students the opportunity to pursue their outdoor passions from fly-fishing to snowshoeing to hiking in the Bighorns.

“With Camp 307, we started with weeklong curriculums and then pared those down to daylong curriculums for days when students are out of school,” Miner said. “So we’ll just pare it down again to a half-day curriculum. Our hope is that these experiences, even though they’re short, will plant a seed of interest in these kids that they can pursue through longer camps and through developing skills on their own time.”

In addition to the expansion of Camp 307, Miner said, the Y would continue to be open to students of all ages looking for a place to come after school.

“I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that we have 40 to 50 students in our building after school most afternoons already – whether that’s middle school kids lifting weights or elementary kids playing pick-up basketball or kids working out in the strength and agility center,” Miner said. “We will continue to serve as that afterschool outlet – both through organized programs and non-program-driven opportunities.”

For his part, Musselman sees the early-release Fridays as an opportunity to offer more field trips for his members and an opportunity to attract new members.

“We want to do more field trips on half-day Fridays – whether that is ice skating at the M&M Center in Sheridan or hiking in the mountains or fishing locally,” Musselman said. “It provides more time for us to take the kids on outings, which supports our mission of unplugging kids and getting back to some proven basics.”

On an average day, the club serves 41 students after school. Musselman said he wasn’t sure of the impact that early release Fridays would have on the club although he is hopeful that he can bring in more students through the activities offered each Friday.

 “Whatever kids we get will be positive for both us and the kids,” Musselman said.

Steve Rzasa, director of the Johnson County Library, was also approached by the school district about offering after-school opportunities for students on Fridays. Rzasa said the library is interested in exploring those opportunities, but he also wants to ensure that library staff can meet the needs of their other patrons.

“It would be nice if we could lend a hand, but I’m currently not sure how much of a role our staff can play in delivering these services,” Rzasa said. “In wanting to help you guys, we don’t want to take away from the time we’re working with adults and patrons of all ages.”

It is still unclear what role the school district will play in this youth alliance. Miner said that he and Musselman have had discussions with district staff about potential funding and staffing for their programs that could be provided by the school district. He and Musselman are also encouraging the schools to provide a handout to students with weekly activities information so that students – and parents – have a better idea of the services available throughout the community.

“There is a lot going on for youth in this town on any given day, and a lot of kids and parents simply aren’t aware,” Miner said. “It makes sense to get that information directly to the students. What better place to do that than the schools?”

Cloud Peak Elementary Principal Craig Anderson said the school district was dedicated to working with organizations to develop a plan for the 2020-21 school year. He also expressed interest in starting conversations with other local organizations, including Limelight Dance Studio, Johnson County 4-H and local churches.

“One of the things that came out of this conversation is that kids may not be doing the same thing every Friday,” Anderson said. “Our hope is to cultivate a great lineup of partnerships so that our students will have plenty of options once the bell rings.”

According to district transportation director Dennis Zezas, the district will run buses on Fridays following early dismissal around 1 p.m. Routes are still being developed, but Zezas said he was hopeful that he could run buses directly to places where after-school activities are happening.

Stephen Dow covers a variety of beats for the Buffalo Bulletin including the Johnson County Commissioners and JCSD #1. Stephen is a Billings native who joined the Bulletin in 2016.

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