Last year, William Portalatin used to go straight home to do his homework and play video games after spending the day at Glenwood Avenue Elementary School in Wildwood.

This year, the 11-year-old spends his afterschool hours at school, doing his homework but also learning about art, music, cooking and other subjects.

Portalatin and 75 other Wildwood students in grades 5 to 8 can stay after classes end for three hours on weekdays and learn about acting, film and other disciplines, as a result of the federally funded, five-year 21st Century Learning Centers grant.

“I was thrilled,” said Josepha Penrose, supervisor of curriculum and instruction for Wildwood Public Schools, which received the $1.5 million grant.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Charl Syvarth, the instrumental music teacher at the middle school and high school, was trying to teach four sixth- and seventh-graders how to play a Caribbean version of “Jingle Bells.” One girl each was on keyboard and bongos, and two boys were on steel drums. The steel drums had the various musical notes that different sections produce taped to them to help the students learn.

“With the younger students, the kids are loving it. They are eating it up. Some of the kids should be in band, but aren’t,” Syvarth said of the one-on-one attention the program allows.

In another room, Sally Bingham, an artist in residence for the East Lynne Theater Company in Cape May, was doing an exercise with 18 fifth-graders. Bingham had them develop a story as a group. Eight students lined up in front of their classmates. One student, who was sitting down, started off the story with one sentence. It was up to the eight standing students to develop the story and keep it going by adding one or more sentences as their turn came.

Bingham used this exercise to teach the students the elements of a story, which include personal details, suspense, momentum and action. Bingham was enthusiastic when the students did a surprising job of building the story and when students came up with a good detail.

“There is no iPhone, no TV, no distraction, no technical prop. They are very open, very with it, very talented. Fifth grade is a great age,” said Bingham, who wants to try to convince the children to have less blood and guts in their original stories. “They are creativity personified. They are great kids. The school has been awesome. ... I’m impressed by how willing they are. We learn from these kids. They change us.”

Jocilynn Young, 10, of Wildwood, signed up for the after-school program and convinced her parents to let her do it after she found out about it in the fall.

“I thought it was going to be fun, and we receive extra time to do our homework. We have acting class, where we have to act. We have gym and Zumba and art,” said Young, who drew a picture in art class with snowflakes and a heart and gave it to her mom. “I have fun playing steel drums.”

Tracey Young, Jocilynn’s father, said his daughter came home, did her homework and left the house to play with her friends last year.

“I actually think it’s a good idea,” said Tracey Young, who added the district had other after-school programs previously that his older children took advantage of. “I prefer the after-school program, because it helps them (the children) out. The teachers are there. If they have questions that they need answered, the teachers probably have more time to explain it.”

Wildwood is one of only nine districts in the state and the only one in southern New Jersey to receive the grant, Penrose said.

Visual and performing arts was the theme the district selected for its grant application. Besides the East Lynne Theater Company, the Center for Community Arts in Cape May is teaming with the district to provide the visual arts component.

The program started in October with the goal of improving the students’ attendance as well as their social and academic skills. One of the goals of the grant is to show students there are many different ways to learn, and it’s not all book work, Penrose said. They also can learn through the arts and hands-on activities. The district lost things because of budgets cuts over the years, Penrose said. Without the grant, fifth-graders would not be exposed to cooking, theater or film, Penrose said.

“I’m looking for any way to expand what we can offer the students right now,” Penrose said.

Contact Vincent Jackson:

609-272-7202