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IL: After school programs leverage community support

Summary: Learn how this district created a more vibrant learning community through the 21st Century Community Learning Center initiative, an after school program that keeps kids in school and learning.

The authors of Beyond the bake sale: The essential guide to family school partnerships write, “Partnerships among schools, families, and community groups are not a luxury—they are a necessity,” (New Press 2006). Furthermore, results of recent surveys suggest that any adult—parent or otherwise—who shows interest in a child’s education, and who holds him accountable for learning, will greatly contribute to that child’s academic achievement (Ferguson 2008).

District characteristics
Name: 21st Century Community Learning Centers
State:  IL
Type: Suburban
Grades: K–12
Enrollment: 15,841
Students per teacher: 17.3

Enrollment characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: 58.7%
English language learners: n.a.
Students with disabilities: n.a.
White: 8%
Black: 18.9%
Hispanic: 70.3%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 2%
American Indian/Alaska Native: .01%
Other: n.a.
Source: SchoolDataDirect.org

This affirms what educators have learned over the years about the effectiveness of programs supported by the 21st Century Community Learning Center (21st CCLC) initiative, which provides federal funding for after school programs. While each state receiving funds determines how it will distribute the money, all grant applicants must show how they will partner with community members and local organizations, and with parents, to supplement their after school programs.

Students in Waukegan (Ill.) Public School District 60 have benefited from the 21st CCLC initiative since the program’s inception. Gains in students’ academic achievement, along with increased community involvement and support, are just a few of the positive outcomes of the district’s innovative after school program.

Local funding for long-term thinking

If long waiting lists are any indication, if grateful testimonials from parents are a sign, if improved student behavior in the regular classroom is an indicator, then the Waukegan Public School’s S.T.A.R.S. program is a definite success.

S.T.A.R.S., Successfully Targeting and Reaching Students, offers after school homework assistance and tutoring, along with enrichment activities, such as drama and dance, fine arts, computer technology, and sports. Equally important is an emphasis on life skills and career planning, says Yvette Ewing, program coordinator. “S.T.A.R.S. is a life-coaching program that inspires kids to learn by helping them create and activate a plan for success,” she says. If a student says she wants to become a doctor, for example, the S.T.A.R.S. teacher would ask the student to create a “dream book” and then help her research what she’ll need to do to prepare for such a career. If feasible, the S.T.A.R.S. staff would then plan a field trip to a local medical facility so the student could see, first-hand, what a doctor’s job entails.

“Kids need to see beyond where they are, they need to see the possibilities"

    Mike Gonzales, 21st Century CCLC

Such field trips help students see that their neighborhoods have no boundaries—a world view borne from experiences that many parents simply can’t provide. For example, a single mother, speaking in a promotional video, acknowledged that her children would never get to museums or the zoo if S.T.A.R.S. didn’t offer the trips. She can’t take the time off from work for such activities; furthermore, she can’t afford them.

“Kids need to see beyond where they are, they need to see the possibilities,” says Mike Gonzales, who once worked with the S.T.A.R.S. program in Waukegan and started a similar program in Zion (Ill.) Elementary School District 6. An important feature of Gonzales’ program included using 21st CCLC funds to take students to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and to tour historically black colleges in Atlanta. As a result, many of those students discovered that other youth, just like them, went to colleges and universities. In that moment of recognition, says Gonzales, his students realized they, too, could include higher education in their plans for the future. Gonzales also used grant money to take his students on a field trip to the Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, which gave them “a historical walk” of African American culture. Through these trips, students get a better of sense of who they are and who they can be, says Gonzales. “It does wonders for the kids.”

Homework help

The enrichment activities and mind-expanding experiences that characterize 21st CCLC programs are designed to “hook” students’ interests. Still, the overarching goal to improve academic achievement is never neglected, says Ewing. The first step is to improve attendance rates. “We tell students that if they skip school, they can’t come to S.T.A.R.S.,” she explains. As a result, because students want to attend the after school program, “kids come to school more.”

When students are regularly in school, it’s easier for teachers to determine where each of them needs to most improve. S.T.A.R.S. teachers can then better target their tutoring and homework assistance. “We always start the year off by meeting with each building’s principal to learn of goals each has,” says Ewing. Often, individual schools will hire tutors—usually certified teachers—to provide academic support; S.T.A.R.S. staff then offer the enrichment activities. “We want to partner with schools, to supplement, not replicate what they do,” Ewing explains, adding that each school’s priority is different, based upon the needs of their student body.

At Glen Flora Elementary School, a low-income school with a sizeable Hispanic population, one priority is to improve reading skills. Students at Glen Flora complete an early literacy development assessment (The Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills [DIBELS]) and the data “guides us on how to help students,” says Zenaida Figueroa, principal at Glen Flora. “Students can’t even do math if they can’t read,” she notes. So, if a fourth-grade student needs tutoring in reading, a teacher who normally teaches fourth grade will supply it. It’s important to pair students with the same grade-level teacher, Figueroa explains, because the tutor will then be familiar with the learning expectations for that particular grade.

A second priority at Glen Flora is homework assistance. “We have many students whose parents, for a variety of reasons, can’t help them with homework,” says Figueroa. These parents, she says, genuinely appreciate the time S.T.A.R.S. teachers spend ensuring that students understand and complete their assignments. “The parents see the school as lending a helping hand. Then, when parents pick up their children, they know the homework is already completed and that they, as a family, can relax together.”

The after school assistance is working. When Glen Flora’s students became eligible for the S.T.A.R.S. program, the school was on Illinois’ academic watch list. Since 2003, however, student performance on state reading and math tests has steadily increased in every subgroup and the school made adequate yearly progress in 2007.

Sustaining the gain

Academic achievement comes with new challenges for schools like Glen Flora, however. Once student performance improves to an acceptable level, students are no longer eligible for 21st CCLC-funded programs. For this reason, “every grant recipient has to have a sustainability plan,” says Gail Meisner, a 21st CCLC State Coordinator for the Illinois State Board of Education.

Schools should use the grants “as seed money” to build their program and “bring in those community partners,” she states. Moreover, schools should be thinking about the end of the grant from the very beginning: in the fourth year of a five-year grant, funding decreases by 10 percent; in the fifth year, it decreases by 25 percent. Schools, however, are expected to maintain the full scope of their programs. Those who wait until the fourth year to think about finding other sources of support will find it difficult to bring a sustainability plan to fruition, Meisner says. 

For more resources on 21st CCLC, click here.

In Waukegan, Ewing is doing all she can to ensure that, as schools come off the academic watch list, she has community organizations lined up to continue providing services for students who still “greatly need them.” Ewing has also arranged to have the S.T.A.R.S. program housed in the same building as an alternative school in the district. Students at the alternative school are there for half the day; S.T.A.R.S. has full use of the building in the afternoon. “I’ve got programs running five days a week,” she says. “And, because we’re now in one spot, it makes it easier for community members to come and help us out more.” Local churches, for example, can ask parishioners to teach a class at the school and personnel from a nearby naval base can tutor students. “There are so many ways to leverage community resources,” Ewing asserts.

Figueroa agrees. In addition to offering the S.T.A.R.S. program, she opens the doors to community members and organizations on a regular basis. Every year, for example, the school has a fall festival and a spring carnival. “These are not fundraisers,” the principal points out. The gatherings are, instead, “another way to bring parents, students, and community members together.” Food, beverages, and ice are donated by community members and local businesses for the two big events.

Before the school year begins, Figueroa holds an open house at Glen Flora to introduce students and family members to their teachers and the curriculum; parents and students leave with a better understanding of how to set up learning areas in their homes. Throughout the year, Figueroa holds a monthly movie night, selecting films designed to “teach” her students. One week, for example, Mary Poppins was shown because many of her students weren’t familiar with the film’s main character or with adages from the movie that permeate American pop culture. (A generation of students not exposed to this movie would not know what a spoonful of sugar can help do, she says.) Figueroa also asks local companies, like Kraft Foods, to visit her school and introduce the world of business to students.

From drama club to choir, sign language classes to math club, and off-campus volunteer opportunities—Glen Flora tries to appeal to the varied interests of students, parents, and community members. The bottom line is that Figueroa understands that community involvement builds a more vibrant learning environment. “We want participation,” Figueroa says. “We want to offer events and after school programs that will make our students—and their families—want to come here and be motivated to learn.”


Ferguson, C. (2008). The school-family connection: Looking at the larger picture: A review of current literature. Austin, TX: SEDL, National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools. Retrieved on June 26, 2008, from http://www.sedl.org/cgi-bin/pdfexit.cgi?url=http://www.sedl.org/connections/resources/sfclitrev.pdf.

Henderson, A. T., Mapp, K. L., Johnson, V. R., and Davies, D. (2007). Beyond the bake sale—The essential guide to family-school partnerships. New York, NY: New Press.

Lessons learned
  • Think outside the box when it comes to instruction. Teachers “have a little more freedom” in after school programs, says Meisner. Here, teachers can help students learn in different ways, employing strategies they may not be able to use in the regular classroom, she notes. For example, students in 21st CCLC-funded programs generally have more ready access to computer software that delivers content in a game-like setting. Teachers also have time to create more experiential learning experiences, such as crime-scene investigations and simulations. “What we try to impress upon people is that they can’t do the same things after school that you did in school and expect students to want to come,” Meisner states. Gonzales agrees saying, “It’s important to have well-balanced programs”. He encourages program creators to think of placing recreation-based activities and academic-based activities on a scale. “Too much recreation and kids lose focus,” Gonzales says. “If academics are overemphasized, kids don’t come.”
  • Think long-term when making purchases for the program. Ewing found that, initially, the inclination for program managers was to “buy lots of craft projects kids would make and take away.” Unfortunately, by year’s end, the supplies were depleted. “I invest in things that last,” Ewing explains. For example, she has purchased a set of drums that will be housed in her building. Ewing’s rationale: The district may lose funding to hire a drum instructor, but she’ll still have the drums and Ewing is confident that she will be able to find someone in the community who will volunteer to teach students how to play.
  • When investigating community partnerships, find out which businesses and non-profit organizations have their own goals for community involvement. “If a community organization has an outreach program, help them meet their goals” Ewing advises. “Ask if they have money to fund a field trip, for example. Maybe they could pay for buses.” Other potential partners include child care providers, elderly service centers, local colleges, and religious institutions.
  • When hiring staff, look to your local community, if feasible. Gonzales, who implemented S.T.A.R.S. in Zion, Ill., grew up in that town. As a result, he had an intimate knowledge of the city that others lacked. “If I needed a coach for a basketball program, I knew who to call,” he says.

This story was written by by Kathy Checkley, a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. Kathy has more than 13 years of experience writing about education issues.

Posted: August 14, 2008

©2008 Center for Public Education

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