This story originally appeared in the fall/winter 2017 issue of Harker Magazine.
While Harker’s academics may garner the most attention from students and parents, the school has significantly bolstered its after-school offerings in the past few years. The lower and middle school BEST (Bucknall Enrichment and Supervision Team and Blackford Enrichment and Supervision Team, respectively) programs have become an integral part of the school’s mission.
What eventually became the BEST program has existed at Harker in one form or another for nearly three decades. “[Howard] Nichols wanted to do just a little extra after-school program for those students who couldn’t get picked up right after school,” recalled Kim Cali, Harker’s lower school BEST director and the program’s founder. When Cali started working at Harker in 1987, she and four staff members formed what was then known as the recreation department.
The recreation Department was very different from the program that exists today. “We had maybe four or five activities when I first started, and now we have 25 activities just at the lower school,” said Cali. She said she began speaking with former head of school Chris Nikoloff as early as 2003 about restructuring and rebranding the growing department.
“We were still running the program with the assumption that we could do it with a director and five or six staff, and it was just too much for me to handle,” she remembered. Recognizing her dedication, Nikoloff asked her to put together a proposal.
Cali’s vision was to see the recreation department transformed from an assortment of after-school activities into an expansive program where students could explore a wide variety of interests. “I’ve always wanted children to be given the opportunity to explore different things,” she said, “so that by the time they get to fourth or fifth grade or by middle school, they really know where their true passion lies besides the classroom.”
Today, BEST caters to anexpansive array of interests, thanks largely to outside vendors who specialize in specific areas and methods of instruction. Activities included in tuition and available to all children until 6 p.m. include Legos, basketball and a host of other unstructured activities, and many children take advantage of those free hours. Both the lower and middle BEST programs also include dropin activities where students can experiment with art, computers and sports at their leisure. Learning workshops allow students to delve into more specific areas, such as web design, robotics and storytelling. Individual and group instruction are offered in a diverse selection of specialty classes, including martial arts, music, cooking, foreign languages and more.
BEST has been very popular among lower school families eager to enrich their children’s education. “We always have waitlists, especially at the beginning of the school year,” Cali said. “Parents are very eager to get their children into as many activities as possible.”
Performing arts classes, such as dance and instrumental music, are perennial favorites, as are STEM classes, such as engineering and robotics, according to Cali. The lower school’s BEST program is a big hit with parents, for whom it is a one-stop spot for extracurricular activities without the inconvenience of having to take their children to another location, she added.
“I’ve had a lot of parents over the course of the years that I’ve been here … who have said, ‘It was between Harker and such and such a school, and it was the extracurricular program that sold me,’” Cali said.
Jenny Cu Tully ’92, whose children, Kira, grade 2, and Brandon, grade 4, are both enrolled in BEST classes, said, “They both love staying after school, and it is so hard to get them to leave the campus. I think that speaks volumes about how much fun they are having in the BEST program.”
Tully said the program’s flexibility is a key feature. “I love that my kids can try a new activity each quarter to find their passion, or stick with the same ones if they know what they love already,” she said.
In addition to deepening their education, students at the middle school also use the BEST program as a way to relax. Activity Avenue, where many students meet after school, offers simple social activities, such as watching movies, playing board games or making crafts. Upon starting as middle school BEST director in 2008, Lorena Martinez introduced Fun Fridays, a weekly event similar in atmosphere to a carnival, with outdoor activities and music at the middle school campus amphitheater.
“The students work so hard, they study so hard,” Martinez said, “that I wanted them to know that at the end of the week, they could relax, they could have fun.”
Many popular activities at the lower school BEST program are already found in the middle school’s curriculum and extracurricular offerings, including athletics and performing arts. Martinez therefore designed the middle school BEST program to contain some less structured activities, and be a place for students to cut loose in a friendly environment.
Martinez also created the teen center, where the middle school’s older students socialize and de-stress. In addition, Martinez said, it has provided another way for teachers to get to know more about their students by participating in activities with them in a no-pressure environment.
“I enjoy their Fun Fridays, as they work extremely hard the whole week to make it fun for the middle schoolers,” said Saumi Mehta, grade 8. “I really think that the BEST program has made me enjoy Harker more and made me less stressed out because of the fun things that they put on for us.”
Middle school BEST staffers also have been keen to listen to student feedback, which Martinez said has been very useful in keeping the program robust and interesting to students. Martinez also advises the middle school’s student government, and has used submissions to their suggestion box to open up discussions about more activities.
“I kind of work with them to also get the heartbeat of what’s going on,” she said.
Much of BEST’s success as a program is owed to its dedicated staff, who Cali calls “the front line to the school,” because they are frequently the first and last people to interact with the students over the course of the day. In addition to running after-school programs, BEST staffers – many of them college-aged and seeking careers in education – also supervise during recess and other outdoor activities. Annie Kallbrier, a 10-year veteran of the BEST program who is now the kindergarten coordinator and a classroom aide, said that “engaging with students outside the classroom gives you a unique understanding of the personality and interests of each student. Watching them explore nature, and helping them to navigate through new social situations every day, is hugely gratifying for me.”
In addition to supervising and helping during various activities, BEST staff members also act as educators. “We seek to help students develop into people of good character as they grow. On the playground, BEST staff are able to teach students how to communicate and problem-solve with their peers,” said Kallbrier. “We hope that we can help every child discover that they are capable, creative and kind in character.”
Cali is highly appreciative of the BEST staff’s ability to work with children, as they must find a balance between the structure of the classroom and the level of freedom that BEST offers. “I think one of our bigger challenges is … sometimes [kids] just want some freedom to play,” she said. “But also, I find that some children like to be directed.
“We look at ourselves as social teachers,” Cali said. “We might not be in a classroom, but we really do have a huge responsibility to these children in helping them develop as good citizens and helping them learn how to work through conflicts and make good choices.”
Not surprisingly, BEST has provided a path to a teaching career for many current and former Harker teachers. “Many of my staff also are aiding in the classroom now,” said Cali, who estimated that more than half of BEST staff members go on to become teachers. “My passion and one of my goals has been to help young adults become teachers, and they’re getting all the experience that they need right here while they’re going to college.” Overall, BEST leaders at both the lower and middle school campuses hope to provide experiences and opportunities that the students will continue to remember as they further their education. Cali sees BEST as not just an area for students to play and learn, but also as a place that offers a sense of community for students who hail from many different parts of the Bay Area. “I always refer to our department as the ‘neighborhood’ for the children,” she said. “We come from all different areas. Some people come from Pacifica, Los Altos Hills, Fremont, wherever. And a lot of children are here for a good part of their day, so this becomes their neighborhood.”
Martinez, meanwhile, hopes that middle school students will continue to view BEST as a source of fun and socialization as important to the Harker experience as the education they receive in the classroom. “I just want the kids to have a good experience here at Harker,” said Martinez. “And I know they’re having a great experience with education, that’s a given. So I just want to make it come full circle. Outside the classroom, it should be just as amazing as it is inside.”
“As a Harker alum myself, some of my best friends, memories and skills were made after school,” said Tully. “The wide range of options is amazing, and I wish I could sign myself up for many of them!”