BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – Most of second grader Paris Steven’s day is spent spelling, using prefixes and increasing her ability to add, subtract and solve number problems at Luis Marin School on Bridgeport’s East Side. When the 3 p.m. bell rings, school turns into a place to dance, hang out and do homework for the next two-and-a-half hours.

“I like music and gym and snack and homework time,” the 7-year-old said in rapid succession, basically outlining the agenda at the city’s after-school program.

A 17-year institution, The Lighthouse Program has evolved from a place to keep kids safe until their parents get out of work, to a place to learn karate, play chess, sing and even perform.

Now it’s working to solidify a role in helping students do better academically, as well.

For the first time, the city of Bridgeport, which runs the $4.5 million program, has invested in a two-month, $16,838 billboard campaign to get more parents to think of The Lighthouse Program as a free tutoring option for their kids.

Part of the No Child Left Behind Act designed to help students at low-performing schools, The Lighthouse Program is one of a dozen approved by the state to offer free tutoring, or Supplemental Educational Services, to city students. For every child tutored, up to 700, the city will get $45 an hour, for 38 hours of tutoring annually — or $1,710 per child.

That money, said Lighthouse Program Director Tammy Papa, will increase the amount she can reinvest into the program.

The tutoring won’t start until November. Until then, the city is still signing kids up for The Lighthouse Program itself.

Always fueled by a mishmash of funding sources, The Lighthouse Program in recent years has found balance in a steady stream of federal grants. When combined with state grants, a federal earmark, a city contribution of $1.3 million annually, fundraisers and now a tuition fee of up to $20 a child, the program has spread to two dozen schools, and may open its 25th site later this year at the Black Rock School.

“In some schools, we are still enrolling. In some there is a waiting list,” said Papa.

So far, there are about 2,450 students. The goal is 2,700.

The first mission: keeping kids safe. “It’s different now,” said Papa. “When we started out it was result of violence happening in our neighborhoods, in and around schools, primarily in afternoon.”

“The focus back then,” Papa continued, “was to put some money into school and get kids safe, occupied and in a large group activity.”

That is still the program’s number one priority, said Papa. “What has really evolved is the content and professional development offered to staff and the opportunity to really raise the bar.”

Although city-run, The Lighthouse Program is managed by about a half-dozen nonprofit agencies in the area — the YMCA, Action for Bridgeport Community Development, Discovery Museum, Sacred Heart University, Bethel AME Church and Music and Arts Center for Humanities. Each is in charge of one or more of school-based sites.

At Marin, a site run by the YMCA, coordinator Nancy Harding — by day a reading specialist at Hall School — bends down to tie the shoes of a student before he runs off to a once-a-week dance program led by Ann Sorrentino, a dance teacher who has students moving back and forth and side to side the minute they step into the gym.

“I love it,” Sorrentino shouts over the music as second graders imitate her every sway and clap in a semi-straight line.

The Marin program has a capacity of 125 students, technically, but generally enrolls about 150 to account for drop off. “We don’t refuse anybody,” said Harding.

Many members of Harding’s staff are teacher aides during the day. Nikkie Jones works with special needs students at Central High School in Bridgeport by day. In the Marin Lighthouse Program, she is reinforcing the letter “M” with kindergartners by leading a rousing chorus of “Monkeys Jumping on the Bed.”

Other staff, like Xavier Contreras and Kristen Glovinski, are college-age students. Contreras and Glovinski can be found with walkie-talkies in hand, organizing the parental pickup. In the early days, the program ran to 6 p.m. It now ends at 5:30 because most parents arrive soon after work.

At Johnson School, Craig Grimes, a fourth-grade teacher by day at the school, is co-coordinator. Many members of his staff have been with him for years. Before Johnson opened, he ran the program at the now-closed Maplewood Annex. Johnson’s Lighthouse Program is budgeted for 175 students. As of last week, there were 159 enrolled.

“I’d rather they stay in school … gangs recruit at a much younger age. If they are here for two-and-a-half hours a day they can get their homework done and stay away from that element,” Grimes said.