Helen Thackston Charter School sixth-grader Shante Grant and substitute teacher Monica Green share a laugh between points during a recent volleyball game
Helen Thackston Charter School sixth-grader Shante Grant and substitute teacher Monica Green share a laugh between points during a recent volleyball game in the new after-school clubs program. Club offerings so far include Zumba, volleyball, basketball, cooking and video gaming. (Bill Kalina — bkalina@yorkdispatch.com)

At school, they call Natasha Miranda the "Zumba Girl."

The Helen Thackston Charter School 11th-grader said she discovered the fitness craze about a year ago. Soon, she was Zumba dancing in classrooms.

These days, Miranda is earning her nickname both during and after school. She's joined forces with a Helen Thackston teacher to lead Zumba classes during the school's new after-school clubs program.

"It's better than going home," she said. "I wanted to show people the Zumba that I do."

Zumba has quickly emerged as one of the most popular choices on Helen Thackston's new menu of clubs. The program started about a month ago.

Helen Thackston, which opened in 2009, serves grades 5-11 and will add 12th grade in September.

The goal: Lincoln, Helen Thackston's elementary sister school, has had after-school clubs for years, said Leonard Hart, Thackston's principal.

Hart said he wants the older kids to know staff members care about them all the time, "not just when they're in school."

Clubs offer students an opportunity to see their teachers as more than authority figures, he said.

"It's a time when we can all be on the same page," Hart said.

Since becoming the school's principal in January, Hart said he's been looking for ways to allow kids to be kids.

He started a student government and ambassadors program. Then, Hart said, he polled those students for ideas about clubs.

Other clubs: In addition to Zumba, kids can participate in basketball, volleyball, cooking and video games clubs. So far, about 150 students have signed up.

Plans are in the works to add clubs for kids interested in board games, archery, construction and shortwave radios.

With permission from parents, students can stay at school until 6 p.m. and then hitch a ride home on a Rabbit Transit bus.

For kids struggling academically, 45 minutes are set aside for a study hall between dismissal and the start of clubs at 4:15 p.m.

Students who have any grades below a B must meet regularly with their teachers to work on improvement plans.

Teachers, security staff and students like Miranda are staying after school to teach and supervise the clubs.

Hart said the after-school program is evidence of Helen Thackston's dedication to its students, reflected in the school's new "All in!" motto.

"All in": The familiar phrase usually associated with poker tables has taken on another meaning at the school.

Hart said he first used the phrase on a frustrating day a few months ago, when he was mediating a dispute between two students.

Realizing the weight of those words, Hart later called an assembly to announce the new motto to students.

"We wanted them to know we're all in this together," Hart said.

Now, it's a common refrain in the school to promote accountability among students and dedication among staff.

Today, even the floor mats in Helen Thackston Charter School have joined the "All in!" chorus.

"I love my kids," Hart said, wiping away tears. "They deserve the best."

— Reach Erin James at ejames@yorkdispatch.com.