A sea of squeals and gasps could be heard as eighth graders set their eyes on their latest experiment — frogs. Members of S.O.A.R, Students of Achievement and Responsibility, dissected frogs Friday at First United Methodist Church as a part of the after-school program.


Trenton Powell, Governor Mike Huckabee Delta Rivers Nature Center education program specialist, walked them the process of cutting into the amphibians.


“This is incredibly important to us,” said Powell of the center’s educational programs. “The whole goal of the Nature Center is to get kids outdoors and into outdoor activities — hunting (and) fishing — things like that. This is just one of the steps to doing that, so now hopefully they’re not as afraid of frogs… .”


Equipped with gloves, scissors and tweezers, students cut in to their frogs ever so gently trying to avoid any “frog juice” from jumping on them. While some needed assistance, 14-year-old Joshua Westmoreland was excited to see what he could find inside of his frog.


“It’s fun to dissect the frog, because you see everything he taught us about the heart and where you find the place of the heart,” said Westmoreland, who is an eighth grader at Watson Chapel Jr. High.


Unlike Joshua, 14-year-old Jayla Jones was a little more apprehensive about diving into the experiment. But, with the help of tutor Ashleigh Jones, she finally got down and dirty.


“It really was a surprise,” said Jayla Jones, describing her first animal dissection. “I didn’t know they (body parts) were in those places. My science and health teacher didn’t teach any of that.”


Modeled after Little Rock’s P.A.R.K, Positive Atmosphere Reaches Kids, S.O.A.R’s mission is to provide “at-risk youth with the opportunity to grow spiritually, academically, and personally while instilling life-long skills to thrive,” a news release says. Five years ago, the McGeorge family donated $1 million towards an after-school program in honor of Pine Bluff Sand & Gravel Company’s 100th anniversary birthing S.O.A.R.


“In grades eighth through ninth, our goal is to expose them to every career cluster out there,” said Joni Alexander, S.O.A.R.’s program director. “If you ask a child now what do you want to be, it’s going to sound like doctor, lawyer, preacher, teacher, policeman and fireman. They don’t know. So, our goal is to expose them to all of those career fields.”


Serving 17 eighth graders, the program focuses on Christian Bible study and prayer, academic programs, workshops and tutoring and recreation and physical activity. Additionally, the goal of S.O.A.R is to work to improve students’ test scores, grades, attendance, learning engagement and lower dropout rates. Tutors from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff aid in helping the students meet the program’s objectives.


“This is the age group that I want to teach — secondary students,” said 19-year-old Ashleigh Jones, who is a University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff secondary social studies major. “I love that it’s a small class and you get to actually know every single one and we talk all of the time. Also, it’s not your tradition classroom.”


When students are not in the classrooms, they have a place where they can relax and unwind. The girls have a lounge plastered with black and white pictures of role models, a vanity stocked with an array of nail polish for manicures and sofas decorated with donut-themed pillows for copious amounts of girl talk. And while the boys don’t have any donut-themed pillows, they do have a pool-table, high tables and chairs, sports memorabilia and walls lined with various photos in their lounge. Also, they have a cafeteria for meals and snacks.


“It’s fun,” Westmoreland said. “I like the gym and the education hour where we go over our homework and all that.”


One floor of the First United Methodist Church houses the after-school program for now. Although S.O.A.R only has less than 20 students, Alexander hopes to one day boast numbers similar to P.A.R.K’s, which has more than 200 participants.


“I want the youth to actually feel like they are stakeholders and that we actually see them as a resource in the longevity of this program,” she said.