A ‘Whole Child’ Approach to Afterschool Education

A Chicago program supports kids’ minds, bodies, and souls—and sends 95 percent of them to college.

By Sarah James

When it comes to ensuring students’ academic success, it truly does take a village. Teachers, youth leaders, parents, grandparents, and other family members all have a part to play. The more adults in a student’s life support them—and believe they can succeed—the more likely they are to succeed. This is particularly true when it comes to students in areas where high poverty rates and limited school funding may mean that parents need to work multiple jobs, or teachers may have larger class sizes, limiting the amount of time they can devote to individual students. In these areas, afterschool programs can help offer extra, often crucial, support. As of 2014, 18% (10.2 million) of U.S. children were enrolled in an afterschool program.

I am the senior director of program operations for By The Hand Club For Kids, a Chicago-based afterschool program which serves 1,360 kids at five locations in four different neighborhoods. In these neighborhoods, kids face challenges such as poverty, gang violence, and a dropout rate as high as 60 percent. (Last year, Chicago saw more murders than Los Angeles and New York City combined.) Our mission is to offer the children in these neighborhoods the support they need to reach the potential we know they can achieve. As a result, our program has a 100 percent high school graduation rate (compared with a rate of about 65–70 percent in Chicago Public Schools). Also, 95 percent of our kids attend college.

We partner with Chicago Public Schools to identify kids who are falling behind, which usually means they have all D’s and F’s in school, as well as frequent tardies and absences. We bus these kids to our location after each school day. Buses are one of our major expenses, but a completely necessary one, as it’s not safe for our kids to cross neighborhood lines because of the gang activity.

Improving Academic Performance

We use a rotation schedule for our academic activities, since we’ve found that it helps the kids focus on one task for a specific amount of time without getting distracted, which keeps boredom and behavior problems down and also helps teach them time-management skills. We go through 30-minute rotations, which includes time in a blended learning classroom, a read-aloud session, and homework time, as well as an enrichment period where students can choose to take a fitness, art, or science-project class.

Our blended learning class time allows us to help our students with their individualized needs. To further personalize learning, we’ve adopted several different reading software programs. Reading Horizons is the program we use for 6th– through 8th-grade students. Kids are assessed the first time they get on the computer to learn their strengths and weakness, which the program uses to give them leveled reading assignments. Students work at their own pace and can choose what they focus on each day. We had one 7th-grade student whose initial assessment was about a 5th– or 6th-grade level. On his second assessment (about 5 months later), he scored at a 9th-grade reading level. When he finished the program this year, his last assessment brought him up to a 12th-grade reading level. Because of his hard work, he was selected to be part of the Ron Burton sports camp in Boston, which is very competitive. It was the first time he got to fly on an airplane.

Our read-aloud sessions help students to develop verbal and listening skills, and also allow us to introduce them to different genres, new vocabulary, and literature they wouldn’t encounter on their own. During these sessions, our staff read books to kids and lead discussions. Lots of our kids didn’t have this experience in their homes during their early childhood, so we’re trying to build a love for reading and show that reading can be pleasurable.

The Whole-Child Approach

What makes us different is we want to build relationships with these kids. They need encouragement. They talk about how other people have put them down and discouraged them. That’s part of the reason we make a point to do things with the kids outside of By the Hand, like a recent trip I took with a group of kids to Washington D.C.: to build those relationships between kids and team leaders. Kids develop mentors and look up to the staff. They think, “If this person went to college, I can, too.”

We take a whole-child approach to our students because we know there’s more to them than their academic performance. We want to bring kids success and give them abundant life, mind, body, and soul. We feed our kids a hot meal every day, and we also provide free eye and dental exams. We had a young lady who needed $10,000 worth of dental work (three root canals), and her mother didn’t have insurance. She was in so much pain she couldn’t even go to school. We took her to a clinic we partner with, and asked what they could do. Because of our partnership, they got it down to $1,000. By The Hand covered $500, and so her mom only had to cover $500. Immediately afterwards, that young lady started doing better in school. It was such a simple fix, but one that wouldn’t have been possible if we didn’t support every aspect of our kids.

Under-resourced kids often haven’t been taught the social-emotional skills they need to excel in life. For instance, during our homework time there might be a kid who is sulking and not doing his homework. Instead of forcing him to follow the instructions, I like to sit down and learn about why he has that attitude. I often find that the answer is “kids were making fun of me at school today,” or something else is going on that they just can’t move past to get their homework done. We also partner with a counseling center, since we have students who go through dramatic/life-changing events. Many of these kids live in toxic stress environments, which means we need to get them to feel safe, comfortable, loved, and supported. Otherwise they are going to be stuck in a fight-or-flight pattern, and their brains can’t learn in that state.

Giving Kids a Hope and a Future

Our support doesn’t stop once our kids graduate from high school, either. We talk about college with our kids a lot. We have a college director to help students get into college, and we do college visits between 9th and 12th grade (and even some in elementary school). Our students can apply for a By The Hand scholarship worth $1,500 per semester, and our college director helps them apply for other scholarships. We also have staff to drive kids to and from college for breaks.

We have a young man graduating from Howard University in the spring. We had another young lady graduate from Indiana State with a criminal justice degree. This young lady had to navigate a difficult environment growing up in the Cabrini Green Housing Projects, and overcame more than her share of challenges. Our founder, Donnita Travis, had a connection to the State Attorney’s Office, and that young lady has worked there for four years now, and she’s the one supporting her family. She recently asked us to suggest two kids from By The Hand to buy Christmas presents for.

Even for our kids who don’t go to college, we have staff to help them apply for jobs or get into trade schools. We had one kid who got his commercial driver’s license, and now he’s a manager at his trucking company. Another student who was with us since 4th grade is now on staff, and has been for four years now.

We’ve seen the fruits of so much of labor over the years. These kids are our heroes for how they’ve overcome so many obstacles to get where they are today. All they needed was someone to take them by the hand and show them that they are capable of incredible things.

Sarah James is the senior director of program operations for By The Hand Club For Kids.

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