Eleven-year-old Trevon Grier doesn't laze around on Saturday mornings watching cartoons.
He wakes up early to catch a ride to school, where he spends two hours practicing math and reading.
Trevon participates in Robert Smalls Middle School's new Saturday school program. It's one of a small number of schools in Beaufort County offering optional Saturday classes to give students extra academic help.
LaToya Grier, Trevon's mother, said she believes her son should take advantage of all opportunities to get ahead that the school offers.
"The school is going to be open, and you should go," she told him.
Trevon hasn't complained. Grier said he doesn't mind going to the Saturday classes, where he can see his friends and spend extra time on the computer.
"He loved it the first day," she said. "He loves to be challenged."
Robert Smalls' Saturday program began in February and is open to any student at the school, principal Denise Smith said. It gives students who are behind a chance to catch up and advanced students an opportunity to try more challenging coursework, she said.
The two-hour classes include instructional time with teachers in both reading and math, as well as time to work with educational software on the district's computers.
Smith said the highest turnout so far is about 40 students, and the number is steadily growing. The school plans to begin offering bus transportation on Saturdays later this month, and she expects that will more than double participation, based on a survey of parents.
"It's been increasing each Saturday as our students and parents realize it is something that can be very beneficial, no matter where they are as to their achievement level," Smith said. "Every child can achieve a little higher than where they are. And for some, a lot higher."
Don Doggett, principal of Whale Branch Elementary School, said turnout for his school's Saturday classes is similar. About 40 students regularly attend this school year, up from about 20 when the program began last school year.
The two programs are paid for with federal or state money set aside for high-poverty schools, principals said. Costs include supplies and transportation as well as the stipends paid to teachers working the extra day each week.
Hilton Head Island Elementary School will offer a short-term Saturday program for the first time this year in the five weeks before students take the state-mandated Palmetto Assessment of State Standards. The program begins in April, and principal Jill McAden said about 125 students have signed up to attend.
She said students are motivated to boost their scores on the PASS exam and excited about the novelty of Saturday classes and the more relaxed school environment she has promised.
"I've told them they can come in their pajamas," she said. "I just want them to come."
Reasons for offering class on Saturdays are in line with the school district's introduction of "extended learning time" a few years ago. The district built 20 extra days of class into the calendar for students who are not meeting grade-level standards on state exams.
It also extended the school year and school day for the four schools in the county with the highest poverty rates and longest history of poor performance on state tests.
"This goes hand-in-hand with our district's philosophy of providing catch-up and growth opportunities," said Sean Alford, the district's instructional services chief.
An evaluation by an education consulting group presented to the Beaufort County Board of Education earlier this year underscored the importance of providing more instructional time to increase student performance, particularly in high-poverty schools.
The consultants reviewed research on high-poverty schools with high-performing students. A study of five such schools in Massachusetts found all had added instructional time through strategies such as an extended school year, extended school days and Saturday classes.
Doggett said he believes those strategies have led to higher student achievement at Whale Branch Elementary, which last year made "adequate yearly progress" under the federal No Child Left Behind law for the first time in several years. The majority of students who attended Saturday school raised their test scores, he said.
Smith said students who see increased achievement after attending Saturday programs will see the relationship between increased effort and better performance.
"It's helping them see, 'I can make higher PASS scores, but I do have to put some effort into it,' " she said.
Doggett said it is essential for students to understand that correlation as they continue their education.
"This isn't just for you to be successful here," he tells his students. "This is to help you be successful in middle school and high school and to help you go on to college."
MAKING IT FUN
The Saturday school atmosphere is more relaxed than the regular school week, said Sammy Durrett, who teaches math in the Robert Smalls program. For instance, students don't have to wear their uniforms, and snacks are served.
"It's a different feel when they walk in the door," she said.
Durrett said she and other teachers use engaging activities and emphasize group work to keep kids interested. Students can talk to each other, making it an opportunity to see their friends, she said.
Durrett said teachers might use activities that disguise learning. One math activity her kids enjoyed involved paging through a catalog and noting the prices of items they liked. Students then practiced multiplying with decimals to apply discounts or add in sales tax.
"They didn't really think, 'Oh, I'm sitting here on Saturday doing this boring math,' " she said. "They were flipping though magazines."