BY MEGAN AUNE AND CATHERINE DUNCAN
The steady strums of ukuleles resonate through the halls of Crockett Elementary, serenading the students in the next room as they meticulously pieced together structures from popsicle sticks.
Such activities are just a few offered to students in Harlingen CISD’s ACE program.
The ACE, or Afterschool Centers on Education, program has been successfully incorporated in five elementary schools and five high schools throughout HCISD, taking place at the campuses after-school from 3 to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. Students receive help with their homework before delving into a rich variety of activities to not only further their education but stimulate their interest in learning as a whole. Students have the opportunity to participate in extracurriculars ranging from table tennis to culinary arts and computer coding.
“We can impact students and give them opportunities that they can’t have during the school day, especially when they’re so busy with their classes and requirements,” said Jesse Saldivar the district’s ACE Project Director. “After school, if we can offer something that’s productive, yet fun, it’s a win-win.”
The students certainly seemed to be enjoying both aspects of the program as they sat and merrily practiced the two chords they’d learned for their Christmas recital and chattered excitedly of the four additional chords they plan to learn for their future performance.
“I like how we can learn new notes and how to play new instruments,” said Adrian Pachaco, a Crockett 5th grader. “I hadn’t played any instruments before this and it’s really helpful for the future if I want to join a band or do music in middle school or high school.”
However, many students can find intellectually stimulating activities outside the arts. Activities centered around science, technology, engineering, and math are also at the forefront of the ACE program. Students have the opportunity to build skills in experimentation, teamwork, and problem-solving.
All ACE campuses provide instructions in coding and other STEM activities, such as robotics and architecture. At Crockett Elementary, students in a variety of grade levels can be found sketching designs for bridges as their after-school pastime.
“First you design it on paper, figure out the size, the width, the length, and then you get the sticks and measure them and then put them together to build your bridge,” explained 5th grade student Enrique Rodriquez as he showed off his team’s finished the popsicle stick bridge. “We’re learning about math and engineering, but also how to work as a team.”
Enrique expressed interest in finding a career in engineering, which is one of the many benefits of the ACE program. It prompts students to explore new concepts.
The program carries on past elementary and into middle school.
At Coakley Middle School, teacher and ACE instructor Andrea Morales spoke to the improvements she’s seen in her ACE students, who have been painting acoustic guitars with their own designs.
“All the students improved a lot,” Morales affirmed enthusiastically. “From their depth to their painting, they got better. Their attitudes got better.”
Students enjoy doing something a bit different after school.
“I really like painting and arts a lot so that’s why I came to this class,” said Kyndra Chavez, “I wanted to get better at what I like doing.”
The opportunity to experience and develop new skills and passions served as the primary impetus for the implementation of the ACE program. Introducing students to foreign ideas and activities not only broadens the perspective and skill set of the students but enriches their mind and future willingness to explore new concepts.
“We really try to encourage and motivate our students throughout the week and offer activities that are new to them that they haven’t been exposed to,” said Saldivar, “It allows us to focus on things such as enrichment, academics, and eventual college and career readiness.”
Additionally, ACE has initiated an 8-week course focused on family engagement and acquiring the skills needed to manage personal finances. Through this collaboration, both students and parents will graduate the course with a repertoire of knowledge concerning essential monetary matters.
“Beginning in 5th grade, they are able to learn about writing checks, savings, compound interest, and more,” Saldivar explained. “Just learning all those basics is so important and a great component of our program.”
These essential lessons provided at ACE are built upon a foundation of extraordinarily qualified and devoted staff at HCISD, who graciously spend their time after school to broaden the minds of ACE students.
“The team does an amazing job and we really try to recruit our staff, reaching out to teachers, paraprofessionals, tutors, volunteers,” Saldivar said. “We get the whole spectrum to really come in and really work with our students and impact them in different activities.”
While HCISD is only on the second year of their five year grant for ACE, they’ve already witnessed its incredible impact reflected in the enthusiasm of students, dedication of staff, and appreciation of parents.
ACE staff plans to add other subjects such as archery and chess.
Next year, HCISD will apply for another year of the grant and plans to expand the program.