Even though the school day is over, dozens of students eagerly crowd into Room C126 at Jemtegaard Middle School (JMS) on a recent Thursday afternoon.
As members of the school’s Sound Stage music and theater group, they’re preparing for a fundraising concert, to be held Nov. 14 at the Washburn Performing Arts Center, which will feature renowned pianist and composer Michael Allen Harrison and Vancouver musician Mac Potts, a former “American Idol” contender.
Group adviser Diana Larson asks the students to come up in front of the rest of the group and sing a few lines of a song. She doesn’t expect that everyone will want to do so. Some students jump out of their seats with no hesitation. Others hold back. But that’s OK, Larson tells them.
“This is a place where we explore,” Larson tells the students. “We don’t make fun of people, (but) we can laugh and have a good time. We want to get along. We want to encourage each other.”
Sound Stage is one of the offerings of Club 8, an after-school program that provides opportunities for students to cultivate their interests and talents in casual settings and foster bonds with adults and fellow students.
Club 8 is held from 2:45 to 4:15 p.m. every Monday and Thursday in various JMS classrooms. The Club 8 program has seven groups students can join: Sound Stage, art, guitar, leadership, math support, robotics and board games.
“We have over 500 students with a wide variety of interests, and this is a great way for them to try something new and connect with other kids,” said JMS student support assistant Tracey Stinchfield, Club 8’s coordinator. “They’re learning to make connections with adults, interact with their peers and express themselves in a safe place.”
Each week, interested students register for their preferred groups, most of which are led by JMS faculty members.
“One of our goals around here is to instill a sense of calm,” said Jemtegaard Middle School Principal David Cooke. “We don’t have a lot of fancy posters up on the walls or stuff like that. It’s a calm sort of setting, and I think Club 8 is an extension of that, where kids can just be kids, relax and feel good. It’s a great way to de-stress, too. There’s more fun, more creativity and less structure.”
Or, as Stinchfield put it: “It’s school, but it’s not school.”
“Club 8 is successful because of the wide variety of activities that are offered and the connection that the kids feel,” said JMS seventh-grade teacher Rebecca Bohlin, who leads the Husky Sled Team leadership group. “I’ve had a couple of students become more confident and brave because of (Club 8). It gives them a tribe, in a way — something to be a part of. They feel more of a connection at school.”
The program can be beneficial for adults as well, according to Bohlin.
“I like the chance to know more about the students and their interests,” Bohlin said. “During the school day I feel like I’m in ‘teacher mode,’ but (during Club 8) I feel I can actually get to know them and ask about them and make better connections. That recognition makes it easier to build relationships.”
The program relies on the contributions of community volunteers who lead one-time workshops or short-term offerings that complement the year-round groups.
“We have had taekwondo, CrossFit and dance classes offered to students for a few weeks or a month at a time with great success,” Stinchfield said.
People have offered to help pay for club supplies and snacks by donating to the Jemtegaard Boosters.
“This doesn’t work unless you have volunteers,” Cooke said. “I love Washougal for the way (residents) support the community. I’ve never seen anything like it. Even if it’s not their own kids, they get involved. The community has embraced it. It’s almost become Washougal’s version of the YMCA, or the Jack, Will and Rob (Center in Camas).”
Club 8 has evolved steadily since its inception several years ago. Originally, Cooke wanted to provide a way for students to connect with adults in “non-school” settings and give them opportunities they may not have had otherwise.
“It’s all about access,” he said. “We want every kid in our school to have equal access. Some kids have access to things. Others don’t. They don’t have the financial means.”
When Club 8 began, Cooke said, it wasn’t an everyday type of offering.
“We started doing little activities after school,” he said. “It was sporadic here and there. We brought it to the new school, did a little bit more, and I ran most of it by myself. Then Tracey took over (last year).”
During the 2018-19 school year, the program attracted between 80 and 100 students per week, a noticeable increase from previous years.
“We recognize kids do after-school sports, and that’s fantastic, but we’re drawing from kids who don’t have anything else to do after school,” Stinchfield said. “Some kids simply don’t want to go home after school, so this is somewhere they can be. We saw a real need.”
Club 8 participants include students from Canyon Creek Middle School.
“(Washougal School District Superintendent Mary) Templeton is big on making sure that kids at each school get an equal opportunity, so she supported a bus to come down from Canyon Creek,” Cooke said. “The thing I love about that is we’re seeing Canyon Creek kids mix with JMS kids, and they’re all going to go to high school together, so they’re building friendships (before) they get to high school. We’re glad (the Canyon Creek) kids are here. It shouldn’t be just a JMS thing.”
Cooke said Club 8 serves as “motivation for some kids to come (to school).”
“Club 8 might be the reason why some of our kids get out of bed on these days,” he said. “Have I seen kids who used to struggle be successful? Yes. Have I seen grades (improve)? Yes. We’ve had parents say that Club 8 has changed their kid — that their kid was shy and didn’t feel comfortable, and this has transformed them. When you hear stuff like that, it’s incredible.”