WENDELL — Third-grader Paige Pember swirled an M&M around in a cup of water Tuesday, watching as the colorful coating started to dissolve.

It was part of a science experience during the Wendell School District’s new after-school program, which kicked off Monday.

Paraprofessional Karren Charles asked a group of three students to drop an M&M into a cup of liquid. “We’re seeing which one loses its color first,” she told students.

Once the experiment was over, Charles asked: “So what did we learn?” Students discovered sparkling water dissolved an M&M, but oil didn’t. Regular water had mixed results.

“Oil can barely do anything to candy,” said eight-year-old Paige.

The Wendell and Cassia County school districts are among nine Idaho recipients this year to receive a total of $1.38 million in federal funding through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. They’re using it to start new after-school programs.

In Wendell, nearly 80 percent of the approximately 1,200 students are considered economically disadvantaged. Students now have access to academic help and hands-on activities once school’s out.

“My personal goal for the program is that these children will be exposed to opportunities they wouldn’t normally have,” program director Jennifer Clark said.

The program — which will serve up to 90 students in kindergarten through eighth-grades — is free for families.

It includes a physical activity, snack and social time, homework and tutoring, and enrichment activities such as puppetry, computer coding and snap circuits.

Through the federal grant, the Wendell School District will receive $179,550 this year to run the after-school offerings.

In Cassia County, the school district will get $121,413 to launch new after-school programs at Dworshak Elementary School in Burley and Burley Junior High School.

After the first day of the program Monday in Wendell, “the kids said they were having fun and didn’t want to go home,” Clark said. “There’s a lot of excitement with the kids.”

Another perk: Children get homework help and are done with assignments by the time they go home, Clark said.

When she was a classroom teacher, she often heard from parents who were stressed trying to help their children with homework.

“A lot of times, the parents are struggling to help their child with the new math,” she said.

On Tuesday afternoon, children filtered into Wendell Elementary School’s cafeteria. Each student received a brown paper bag full of snacks, including apple slices and a cup of Chobani yogurt.

After snack time, students headed to classrooms to get homework help. In a room with second and third-graders, students plugged away at math worksheets, reading and coloring.

Paraprofessional Victoria Cerda worked with a few girls on math homework. She asked one student to multiply 5 and 9. She showed her how to use her fingers to help solve multiplication problems involving 9s.

Cerda moved on to help a boy with a worksheet about punctuation.

“Add a period or question mark to the end of each sentence,” Cerda said, reading the instructions.

“You only use a question mark when you’re asking a question,” she explained. “You use a period when it’s the end of a statement.”

As students finished their homework, they moved on to the M&M activity.

With one group of students, Charles said: “It looks like that water is eating that M&M, doesn’t it?”

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The oil protects the coating of the candy, she told them. “Isn’t that cool?”

The after-school program runs for an hour before school and two hours after school Mondays through Thursdays.

Wendell schools are on a four-day school week, but the new program offers four hours of activities each Friday morning.

So far, 59 children are signed up for the program. But some families haven’t turned in registration forms yet.

“We’re still in the enrollment process,” Clark said, and she doesn’t expect any problems filling all 90 program slots.

In past years, the Wendell School District offered an extended day program using federal Title I money for schools with high poverty rates.

But now, the new after-school program goes beyond academics to include enrichment activities. Next week, for example, children will get a lesson in flag etiquette.

Clark also plans to have children write letters to pen pals in Buhl and Cassia County, and then visit their new friends this spring.

As for field trips, she’s looking into taking students to Bruneau Dunes State Park in Mountain Home.

To help launch the program, businesses have provided donations such as yogurt from Chobani, food from Simerly’s Market and Dairy Queen in Jerome, and items from Walmart.

“Whenever I’ve asked somebody, they’ve said, ‘absolutely,’” Clark said. “It has helped us get started and get on our feet.”

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