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Buffalo schools are in session ... on Saturday mornings

 The girls race back and forth across the gymnasium, kicking the soccer ball to each other.

In a classroom on another floor, a group of students prepares traditional African sambusas, a type of pastry. Meanwhile, other students practice English or prepare for college entrance exams while their parents learn about financial literacy and health care.

All of this in three hours on a Saturday morning.

Most public schools shut down over the weekend, but not in Buffalo where roughly a dozen schools now open their doors so students, parents and community members can squeeze in a few extra hours of learning and enrichment activities.

"We're opening the buildings up over the weekends so the entire community can use them," said David Mauricio, the district's chief of strategic alignment and innovation. "What it's about is offering creative programs that get people up at 8:30 and excited to be here."

The Saturday academies are part of the district's community schools initiative, which aims to provide students and families with services that can range from job training and mentoring to enrichment activities and health care. The idea is that offering students - and parents - that extra support in areas outside of the classroom will help them do better academically.

The weekend program gives schools a few extra hours to offer those services outside the confines of the regular school day, and at a time when more parents might be able to participate.

They also put the school buildings to good use over the weekends, and allow a variety of community organizations and businesses to get involved supporting students.

At Lafayette High School, Westside International Soccer offers a six-week program for both boys and girls.

Girls compete in a tournament organized by Westside International Soccer as part of the Saturday academy program at Lafayette High School. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)


"Our mission is to bring the sport to refugee and low-income children," said Amanda Escobar, who founded the organization with her husband. "We've really wanted to find a way to partner with the schools, and this was a great way to do that."

UnitedHealthcare offers wellness seminars for parents and purchased electronic activity trackers for students at East and Lafayette – with the aim of encouraging families to build a healthy lifestyle.

Several banks teach parents courses on financial literacy and managing credit.

Naw Paw, 14, left, and Anita Kami, 15, make a pina colada smoothie during a cooking class at Lafayette High School as part of the Saturday academy program, Saturday morning, Jan. 14, 2017. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Lafayette even had a company give a seminar on sealing windows for energy savings, and every participant left with a kit to seal their own home.

"You really have to put together creative programs to hook them, and then you can work on some of those other things like getting them involved with their child's education," Mauricio added.

Along with the enrichment activities, students can also get help with school work or preparing for college admissions exams.

Paw Wah, 18, and Sandrie Nyiraneza, 15, are among the girls playing in a round robin soccer tournament organized by WestSide International Soccer in the gym at Lafayette High School as part of the Saturday academy program, Saturday morning, Jan. 14, 2017. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The district is keeping track of who attends and will eventually use that information to assess the effectiveness of the Saturday program, including looking at whether students who participated had better attendance or showed greater academic improvement. Officials  will also look at whether students whose parents regularly participated saw gains in those areas.

So far, the anecdotal evidence is promising. Some programs have been popular enough to draw hundreds of people.

"I like to have something to do with the day," said Nasra Ali, a Lafayette student who moved to the U.S. five months ago from Somalia. "It's fun and you get to know people."





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