"Hall Passages" is a weekly education feature in the Missoulian. Each week on a rotating basis, K-12 education reporter Jamie Kelly visits a private or public school in the Missoula Valley to see what's new in the halls and walls of our learning institutions. On Monday, Kelly spent some time at Paxson Elementary School.
School let out on Valentine's Day and the Paxson Elementary halls quickly emptied on an afternoon that felt like spring, partly because the Dairy Queen across the street on Higgins Avenue had just opened for the season.
But inside the school, seven students enjoyed their own treat - a science presentation not about the munching of sweets, but the discovery of who stole them.
A broken cookie jar, purloined cookies, a mystery.
Any kid would want to know, so Steve Lodmell, a University of Montana biology professor, let each child spray down the evidence with the chemical Luminol for traces of blood. Luminol binds itself to the iron in even invisible traces of blood, and glows luminescent green under black light.
Catching a cookie thief is just one of the cool things kids will do at Paxson in its six-week after-school enrichment classes.
Spearheaded by parent Rebecca Jasmine, the mother of twin third-grade boys, and supported by first-year principal Kelly Chumrau, the after-school program gives nearly 100 kids a fun slate of studies, Monday through Thursday, in computers, science, writing, Chinese and even clog-dancing.
Jasmine began thinking about the program after her boys began to show interest in learning more math and science than they could in the classroom. She figured other parents and children would also be interested.
"I wanted something that was going to benefit my children," she said. "Then when I thought about it, I realized this could benefit all kids."
It could. But what kid would sit in class all day and then stay after school for more education?
When the school sent out word about the program earlier this year, "it was completely booked the first day," said Jasmine. Right now, nearly a third of the student population is taking at least one after-school class.
The classes are popular because they introduce children to challenging and fun ideas, and because they engage them in the real world, showing the applications of knowledge.
Half a dozen or more UM professors volunteer at Paxson in the hourlong classes, leading kids in hands-on lessons about mathematics, computers and even virology.
The latter is what Lodmell taught his students just before he gave them an immersive experience in blood detection. Using slides and videos, he showed them the difference between bacteria and viruses - how bacteria is alive and multiplies on its own, and viruses invade cells to spread.
"How do you not get a virus?" asked a girl.
"Good question," said the professor. "Sometimes you get a virus and you don't even know you have it. Most of the time your immune system takes care of it, but sometimes there are problems. What I want to do is develop drugs to fight them."
Chumrau, who was hired as principal after teaching second-grade at Paxson, said the program is part of a larger community effort to bring parents and other volunteers into the school. Under Jasmine's leadership, there are around 150 adults volunteering time in the school to tutor or mentor the school's 337 students.
"Teachers just need so much support in our classrooms," she said. "We have such a range of learners, and we really need an army of volunteers."
She would like to see other elementary schools in Missoula County Public Schools and beyond organize their own programs, because they're important and they function well with enough caring parents.
"I could not do it without these incredible parents," Chumrau said. "They're absolutely amazing and they want to be involved."
Reach reporter Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.