By MEGAN PETERSEN | Ketchikan Daily News

KETCHIKAN, Alaska (AP) — A steady rhythm of solid hits and the occasional clatter of a missed shot echoed in the gym at Point Higgins Elementary this past Thursday during the after-school archery program. Ten focused fourth- through sixth-graders eyeballed a bull's-eye, positioned 10 meters away, with brightly colored compound bows pulled taught. They each shot five aluminum arrows at a target before quietly hanging their bows on a blue rolling rack and waiting for their peers to finish.

“In archery, there is very little talking, it's just whistle commands that they have to follow,” said Sam Hernandez, Point Higgins' P.E. teacher and archery club coach.

The students stood behind the cart and fidgeted while Hernandez gave instructions to a student struggling to pierce the target. Two girls practiced a tap-dancing routine and a boy peeled a band-aid off his finger and put it in his pocket. A second group of kids lay on their stomachs on the gym floor behind the cart, labeling the parts of a compound bow and its arrows in groups under the supervision of assistant coach Brian Elliot.

A dense thud sounded in the gym as the final archer fired her last arrow. This time, it pierced the white plastic cover of the target. She smiled and joined her peers

“Not every kid, not every boy and girl is going to be playing volleyball or basketball or football or soccer, so if they're not really developing those skills, this is something they can do,” Hernandez said, adding, “there's a lot of responsibility, a lot of safety involved (in archery), and it builds self-esteem.”

The Point Higgins archery program started its second season this year. Hernandez said he started the after-school club after the school purchased archery equipment for P.E. classes in January 2014. Some 25 fourth- and fifth-graders participated and, after two months of weekly practices, received a certificate.

This year will see some changes, Hernandez said, and they're mostly expansions to the program. Two groups of second- through fifth-graders are going through the after-school program this year, and the older group, some 20 fourth- and fifth-graders, can compete on the Point Higgins Archery Club team.

“We're trying to put together a team this year to compete at the state competition, which will be in Anchorage sometime around March, but we are not going to travel there,” Hernandez said. “We're going to do it virtually.”

To compete virtually, Hernandez simply will set up the targets according to NASP regulations at a local venue and have students shoot and complete their score cards. The top 12 scores from the team will be sent up to National Archery in the Schools Program officials in Anchorage, where the scores will be factored into the state-wide competition on March 26.

But archery's not just extra-curricular at Point Higgins, Hernandez incorporated archery into the P.E. curriculum last year. Hernandez said he not only teaches shooting techniques and equipment anatomy, but also the culture and history behind the sport. Safety, etiquette and conduct are important themes for the P.E. classes, the after-school program and the club, Hernandez said. There are rules for participation designed to incentivize kids to do well in school. For example, if students don't have good grades, they can't participate in archery practice.

“They must come to school that day, the day the archery club meets. If they're absent, they cannot come to archery, so we use this as a motivator for them to come to school,” he said.

But at the same time, Hernandez said the rules aren't there to isolate kids struggling in school, and the sport has been “well-known” to turn lives around. Archery also can be an important outlet for people who are less athletically inclined, as it offers similar exposure to competition and teamwork as more physical sports.

“There are really no physical or mental limitations in archery,” he said.

The only limitations for archery education in Ketchikan is equipment and certified instructors, Hernandez said. In October 2013, a handful of local parents and teachers were certified to teach archery by representatives from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, but so far, most schools in the district don't have equipment needed to train archery students, bows, arrows, targets, racks and curtains to protect learning environments, among other things.

“It's a big investment. With all that equipment, you're talking a lot of money,” he said. “It's a new program here, so it's going to take a while to build up.”

Outside the school district, Hernandez has worked with Girl Scout troops in the area, and local Boy Scouts have also had lessons. He said that girls are often more interested in archery.

“This is my tenth year (teaching archery) and I see that this is something, especially for girls, that they can do if they don't want to do other sports,” he said, adding, “Girls do exceptionally well in archery. … They also tend to be a little harder on themselves. If they don't get the bull's-eye or miss the target, they'll know they can do better.”

Point Higgins fourth-graders Kya Zink and Tressa Greaves said they're in their third year of learning how to shoot, having learned from family before the school started the program. But there's still room for improvement, they said after shooting a few rounds of arrows at practice this past Thursday.

“(My score today was) pretty good,” Kya said. “I think I could do better though.”

“I'm glad these are just practice scores,” Tressa said.

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Information from: Ketchikan (Alaska) Daily News, http://www.ketchikandailynews.com