After the final bell at Dawes Middle School each Wednesday, Donavan Appling and Dorian Avig make their way to an empty classroom, grab their drumsticks and the master class begins.

Their teachers: two University of Nebraska-Lincoln students with some pretty impressive percussion chops.

Jared Noetzel, a junior, and Paul Umshler, a senior, are friends who played in the Omaha Burke High School drumline -- the best percussion unit in the state for three years running -- then went on to play in the Cornhusker Marching Band.

They landed at Dawes Middle School because Noetzel is part of the UNL Honors Program, which is piloting a new project to offer students more opportunities for community involvement through after-school clubs at Lincoln Public Schools’ Community Learning Centers. 

Students earn credits required to be in the honors program, and learn something about themselves in the process.

“We found out it was a great experience for college students,” said Shannon Mangram, honors program coordinator of community engagement and retention. “They’re learning just as much as the students in the clubs.”

Jeff Cole, who leads an after-school network called Beyond School Bells, and Patrice McMahon, his wife, came up with the idea after she was named director of the UNL honors program.

“I thought gosh, there’s some really talented college students who really want to be involved,” Cole said. 

Putting that passion into action isn’t always easy, but he and McMahon realized the honors program could be an opportunity for 2,000 talented young students.

“We thought ... that is a reservoir of talent that could be tapped to provide really valuable services to the CLCs,” he said.

Honors program officials reached out to Nola Derby-Bennett, director of Lincoln’s CLCs, which operate before- and after-school programs in 26 high-poverty schools that get federal Title I money.

Students came up with ideas for clubs and pitched them to CLC supervisors, who picked the ones that would fit well in their schools, Mangram said.

The honors students ran 10 clubs during the fall semester. That expanded to 30 clubs at eight elementary schools, three middle schools and one high school this spring.

About 40 honors students participated, Mangram said, and twice that many expressed interest but had conflicts.

“We’re definitely hoping to make this more of a major part of the honors experience,” she said.

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The students write curriculum, do midyear reflections on their experiences, and at the end of the semester their curriculum is made available online, Mangram said.

The UNL students get paid for their work. Some funding comes from the Mott Foundation, and the honors program is applying for a grant to expand the clubs next year. They plan to continue some clubs this summer.

They hope schools and perhaps UNL students who go home over the summer will use the curriculum online to start similar programs across the state, Mangram said.

It's a learning experience for the UNL students who get hands-on experience managing classrooms and working with children. They learn organization skills, how to think on their feet -- and that things don't always go as planned, Mangram said.

"I'm very proud of how they've grown," she said. "I've heard them say things like, 'I've never had to adapt so quickly.'"

Mangram said they hope the clubs can help close the achievement gap in schools by exposing kids to high-quality activities that tap into their passions.

The clubs also pair kids with college students -- an experience that might help them see themselves in college one day.

About 250 LPS students are in the clubs this semester, Mangram said.

They include engineering and robotics and science clubs. There's an around-the-world club and a stress coping club, an adventure book club and one on Greek mythology.

Noetzel, a psychology major and music minor who ran a bucket drumming club for elementary students when he was in high school, came up with the idea.

He enlisted the help of Umshler, who isn’t in the honors program but also went to Burke and is part of the UNL drumline. He also has experience teaching, he said.

Dawes’ bucket drum club has several other kids, but Donavan and Dorian are the most committed.

“These two are like sponges,” Umshler said. 

Donavan had never played drums before, but has played baritone, trombone and guitar for years. He figured the bucket drum club would help him with his rhythm.

Dorian has been playing drums for a while and knows high school is just around the corner.

“I saw this as a good way to prepare,” he said. “It’s definitely taught me a lot. It’s given me a perspective of what (high school) marching band will be.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.


Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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