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    When the 2018-19 school year starts up this fall, the SPARKS program will serve students in all five local school districts in Clare and Gladwin Counties for the first time in its 15-year history.

    Staff at the Clare-Gladwin Regional Education Service District, which oversees the afterschool and summer program that is free to students and their families, recently received word of new federal funding in the amount of $810,000 per year for the next five years that will allow SPARKS to reopen sites in secondary schools in Beaverton, Farwell, Gladwin and Harrison.

    “Thanks to grant money we earned a year ago, we were able to offer SPARKS services to elementary schools in four local districts, plus Coleman and Meridian,” said SPARKS Project Director Rebecca Idzikowski. “With this new round of funding, we can now once again offer SPARKS at Beaverton Jr./Sr. High School, Farwell Middle School, Farwell High School, Gladwin High School, Harrison Middle School and Harrison High School.”

    SPARKS, or Students Participating in Academics and Recreation for Knowledge and Success, is an afterschool and summer school program created locally in 2003 with federal funding from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant through the Michigan Department of Education. The program’s mission is to provide academic support and enrichment activities for students, many of whom are at risk of low achievement.

    Working with several other community partners, including MSU Extension in Clare, Gladwin and Midland Counties, the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, SPARKS helped 303 students last year; with the addition of the secondary schools in 2018-19, that number could double. Idzikowski said that whatever people might think they know about SPARKS, they probably don’t have the full picture.

    “We focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), job and career skills, homework and tutoring, math and literacy, credit recovery and community involvement,” she said. “Our kids enjoy a safe, inspiring learning environment with programming that has been proven to boost school attendance and academic performance. SPARKS fills an essential need for these students.”

    CGRESD Superintendent Sheryl Presler, who led the grant writing team that secured the original funding 15 years ago, said this latest grant is the result of intense effort on the part of her staff.

    “Twenty organizations in the state of Michigan alone applied for this federal grant,” Presler said. “Ours received two of those grants and roughly 10 percent of the funding awarded in the state. Our staff worked tirelessly on this grant because we believe so strongly in its benefits, and it’s a feather in our cap to receive this amount of funding when the competition for limited dollars was so intense.”

    Idzikowski said the SPARKS staff is excited to have the grant writing process out of the way and ready to tackle the new school year.

    “At its best, SPARKS’ federal and local goals focus on increasing academic achievement, expanding student learning in non-academic areas, targeting the lowest achieving students, promoting student attendance, strengthening community involvement, increasing family education and participation and providing a wide range of expanded enrichment opportunities,” she said. “SPARKS’ goals reflect outcomes that are achievable, yet higher than federal targets. And we do all that while providing a snack and dinner each night, transportation, field trip opportunities and more, all at no cost to students or their families.”

    Follow all the latest SPARKS happenings, including its summer program, by searching “ClareGladwinSPARKS” on Facebook.