SNELLVILLE -- When Clay Hunter first took the principal's post four years ago at South Gwinnett High School, he noticed something peculiar.
Every afternoon when classes were dismissed a large number of students wouldn't leave the building.
"The bell rang, and it was time to go home, yet we had hundreds of students in the hallways," Hunter said.
"When I asked what they were doing, they said, 'we don't have any other place to go.'"
It was the start of FUTURE, or Fellowship and Fun, Understanding, Tutoring, Unity, Recreation, Education. The program aimed to help students who needed a safe environment for two to three hours each day after school.
Hunter said it also presented an opportunity to help "at-risk" students to succeed academically through tutoring and mentors.
It has grown for the past two years, and those involved with FUTURE learned this week that the after-school program was awarded a three-year grant to maintain and possibly expand services offered.
It was very good news, said Area Superintendent Calvin Watts.
"The grant provides an opportunity to reach all students, particularly those types who are in at-risk situations or may be under performing," Watts said.
He applauded the news as the Gwinnett County Board of Education approved acceptance of the grant from 21st Century Community Learning Centers at the meeting on Thursday.
Chairman Robert McClure said the success of the after-school program is the success of the community.
"The community has really risen to the occasion on this one," McClure said. "They stepped forward and did the job that a community is supposed to do. It's a program that certainly deserves a grant like this."
In its first year, the grant provides $272,610 to program organizers.
It's money that will be put to good use, Hunter said.
"If (a student) fails a class, it becomes very, very difficult to make it up in terms of time and money," Hunter said. "You usually have to take it in summer school, and that can cost you both.
"With this grant, we can offer academic credit recovery students need for free," he said. "In addition to that, we're also able to offer enrichment activities for students."
Opportunities may include creative writing workshops, counseling sessions and test preparation.
What started as a two-day a week gathering of several dozen students two years ago has grown into a Monday through Thursday after-school program with 150 students.
The grant allows the program to grow even more.
The grant was written by Community School Director Alexcia Cooper and a team of staff members, but Hunter credits the students for coming up with the idea.
When students told him four years ago they didn't have any place to go after school, he asked them why they didn't want to go home.
"They gave me all different sorts of reasons why home was not a good option, whether it was that they were latchkey kids, so the idea of being at home by themselves was boring ... or their parents were concerned with them getting into trouble."
Hunter asked the group of students a question:
"If I create a safe, organized place for you to come, stay, socialize and do your homework, will you stay in that place and take care of that area?"
The students said "absolutely."
Money to keep the FUTURE program funded comes from the 21st Century Community Learning Grant. After three years of funding, the after-school program will be eligible for renewal of the grant.
In order to do that, students involved must show improvement by passing graduation tests, getting on track to graduation and "sticking with the program."
Hunter also credited the community for "rallying" behind the program.
"We have hundreds of volunteers who have come through to help this over the year. Churches, clergy as well as members of the business community have been essential to this cause."
The FUTURE after-school program starts back up Sept. 6 and runs through May 18 Monday through Thursday after school.
Students in need of credit recovery, tutoring, test preparation and learning enrichment should contact the school's community school director's office at South Gwinnett High School.
According to its website, the 21st Century Community Learning Center grant "supports the creation of ... centers that provide academic enrichment opportunities during on-school hours for children, particularly students who attend high-poverty and low-performing schools. The program helps students meet state and local student standards in core academic subjects, such as reading and math; offers students a broad array of enrichment activities that can complement their regular academic programs; and offers literacy and other educational services to the families of participating children."