New Haven Independent – 2015

“Highfliers” Keep It Going After School

BY Aliyya Swaby | APR 1, 2015 12:32 PM

Posted to: Arts & Culture, Schools, Morris Cove



When Laura Cross was asked to put together an after-school program for Nathan Hale School just before the fall semester, she got on the phone and started building a coalition of parents to help run it.

Now, almost seven months later, Cross (pictured above) and her team have enrolled about 130 students in “Nathan Hale Highfliers”, where they can choose among 23 different arts, music and sports activities between 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. every weekday. And, parents emphasized, it’s much more than just babysitting.

The kids benefit from “having it all in one place,” Cross said. Nathan Hale is at the gateway to the Morris Cove neighborhood. It would be difficult for many working parents to shuttle their kids other towns or even other neighborhoods, “living this side of the bridges,” Cross said. Highfliers tuition costs parents about $12 per day.

Cross organized an art show at Nathan Hale in the summer. Afterward, the principal approached her to ask if she would get an after-school program off the ground. She found out the program was definitively going forward in late August and had just three weeks to hire staff, create and mail out brochures and build a structure. She was worried it would be difficult to get parents on board on such late notice, but parents reached out to her looking forward to sending their kids or teaching a class—or both.

Cross has two sons in the school, a kindergartener and a third grader, both registered in Highfliers. About seven other activity “facilitators” are also Nathan Hale parents.

Jody Ortiz, who heads the “Integrative Arts” program, got to spend time with her two sons while showing a roomful of kids how to make artificial flowers from recycled and “found” materials. “Most of the parents who work here all have their kids with them,” she said. “It’s special that we’re able to do that.”

And she gets to know other Nathan Hale kids, many of whom are more relaxed and chatty after school than they are in a classroom setting.


“Children’s yogini” Birke Gregg led a bunch of squirming children—including three of her own—in a series of “jungle themed” poses. As the children held “river dolphin” poses, which might otherwise be called downward dog, Gregg’s baby crawled underneath. None of Gregg’s children attend Nathan Hale, but Cross said she thinks it’s important to integrate parenting into the after-school program: “We’re all moms and we all have kids.”

Most of the Highfliers’ 130 registered students are younger, between preK and fifth grade. Cross said she tried to create specific activities middle schoolers would enjoy, but attendance was low. No one showed up to Zumba or yoga classes designed for older kids.

Eight seventh and eighth graders volunteer their time helping facilitators lead activities and corral kids during transition periods. Kids rotate between two activities per day, with a break for snack and another half-hour for homework.


Eighth-graders Adeline Ozyck, Samantha Rodriguez and Isabella Furino (all pictured) said they enjoy getting experience working with kids. Next year, they can apply to be paid to do the same job. Career High School freshman Tucker Punzo is the program’s first intern—when he was a Nathan Hale student, he helped out in the office, but he never had the opportunity to participate in a program like Highfliers.


The three volunteers were sitting a table over from fourth-grader Alex Flores, third-grader Josue Noguera and first-grader Brandon Fajardo as they built a battleship out of Lego blocks. The trio had been working on the ship for more than four weeks.

Who was going to use the ship? “I think I am,” Josue said. The other boys giggled.

Highfliers have made some Nathan Hale students “celebrities,” Cross said. The writers and editors of The Patriot Times newspaper are easily recognizable around school by their silly-face headshots printed at the back of each issue, and the fact that they walk around the building handing out copies.


Fourth-grader Xavier Kearney was hard at work writing a review of animated music video “Narwhals,” popularized by a recent Sprint commercial. The song had no bad words and a good beat, Xavier said, and a lot of people know it from the commercial. But most don’t know that narwhales—rare tusked whales—are real animals, he said.

Cross said she is working on adding new activities for the third and last term of the school year, which begins in April. “I don’t want it be stagnant. I want to keep it fresh,” she said. When the weather is nicer, kids will be able to take care of seedlings in the school’s adjoining garden and older kids can take archery classes through the city’s parks department.

Tags: arts education, Nathan Hale School, Highfliers, Laura Cross

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