Tormohlen: Preparing kids for real life after school

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Aspen Community Foundation, Board Photo, Mar. 13, 2014
Steve Mundinger |

In this column, we’ve discussed many of the issues impacting the Aspen-to-Parachute region and how various organizations are responding. Now we’d like to give voice to people who are working to effect positive change.

Deb Rice is the executive director of Access AfterSchool, which provides after-school activities to middle school students from Basalt to Rifle. A Roaring Fork Valley native and parent of two grown girls, 25 and 30 years old, Rice volunteered in her children’s schools and ran a tutoring center for a time. She joined Access in 2009 to help kids find their passions and bridge the gap between school and the real world.

Aspen Community Foundation: Briefly describe Access AfterSchool, why it exists and what it does.

Deb Rice: Access AfterSchool is an umbrella organization that collaborates and partners with school districts, nonprofits and for-profits to provide programming on site at the schools for kids needing enrichment and extra academic assistance in a safe place during after-school hours.

The main purpose was to expose kids to new experiences that they normally would not get within the school day. We’ve picked up a lot of the lost arts, like sewing, knitting, cooking, baby-sitting (and) first aid. There’s also science, physical activities and sports. … The most important piece of our model is the 1-to-10 (student-teacher) ratio, because we feel that the successes we’ve seen are when kids can relate to an adult mentor in their community. Parent surveys show a 95 percent satisfaction rate.

We charge $2 per class. If we’re doing a fly-fishing course and it’s a 10-week course, then it’s a total of $20. We’re also funded through governments in the valley, through grants, through business and personal donations. We have one state grant.

ACF: How many kids do you reach? Who and where are they?

DR: Access serves approximately 1,500 kids annually, and we employ about 200 instructors. Fifty percent of those instructors are school district teachers, and 50 percent come from outside organizations. I collaborate with at least 75 nonprofits. And I have a very small staff of three people.

We used to be Access Roaring Fork but changed our name because we’re not just in the Roaring Fork Valley. We cover all the middle schools from Basalt to Rifle — five middle schools.

We provide opportunities for all kids, all levels, all interests. We have home-school kids, we have Montessori kids — community school kids, Waldorf School kids do our programs. We open the doors to all middle school-aged kids in the valley. Kids in middle school are more at-risk. That’s when they might engage in risky sexual behaviors or drugs and alcohol.

I want to mention that XLR8 (pronounced “accelerate”) is a strictly academic program that we run for kids who are falling behind. We had 184 kids at Basalt Middle School that were in danger at the beginning of the year of needing the proficiency to move on. We worked with them, and 84 percent of those kids were able to transition at grade level, which is huge.

We also do a summer camp in Rifle called Boost Camp. It’s a four-week-long, five-day-a-week camp that provides academic assistance in the mornings and enrichment and outdoor activities in the afternoon. It’s focused on elementary kids. We didn’t want younger kids (grades one through five) in that community to be left all summer on their own. This helps to keep them on track academically. Right now we enroll 120 kids with a wait list.

ACF: Are there still unmet needs in your service area? What else should readers know about local kids?

DR: The key to everything is building these personal relationships. Every kid needs an adult, a different adult than those in the school or at home, to encourage them to try new things, to experiment. I think kids need to learn how to apply what they learn during the school day in real life. That’s where we’re trying to connect the dots for them.

We have an 83 percent attendance rate in all our classes, which is pretty incredible for middle school kids.

ACF: What’s your dream for Access AfterSchool?

DR: The dream would be to provide programming to elementary school kids. The younger you get them, the higher-percentage chance you have of keeping them on the right track. So that would be my big wish. I would do second grade all the way though ninth grade. That’s where I think we lose a lot of those kids. Access believes that enriching the lives of youth and supporting working families builds healthy communities.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.