Program Profile: East Aurora School District 131 21st CCLC Promotes Student Attendance in School and After School

Although each of the 13 sites in East Aurora School District 131’s 21st CCLC afterschool program has its own character, they share common goals. These include engaging programming, strong relationships, collaboration with school-day staff, clear expectations, and a supportive environment for students—all of which support the overarching goals of regular student attendance and improved student outcomes.

Engagement begins by giving students a voice in program activities, and each year 21st CCLC staff ask students what their interests are and what they would like to accomplish in the afterschool program that school year. “Their responses have been great!” says 21st CCLC program facilitator Noemi Vargas. Students have suggested subjects that they often can’t study during the school day, like art, cooking, and learning computer skills, “things that they aren’t able to learn during the school day,” says Vargas. Staff also encourage students to assume responsibilities in the program. Sometimes these are simple tasks like setting up for class or managing equipment, but Vargas notes that students also lead activities. All of the tasks are intended to give students a sense of ownership of the program.

Where some educators might find distractions, 21st CCLC program leaders form real-world connections with students’ interest. For example, after learning that students liked to give each other manicures, the team at the Waldo Middle School site formed a cosmetology group and encouraged students to explore related career paths. After learning what jobs interest students, staff create real-world connections with mock job interviews and internet research on careers. 

The 21st CCLC team members list a welcoming environment and strong relationships as a key factor in student attendance, and staff work hard to form positive relationships with students, their families, and school staff. In addition to encouraging students to shape the program, site coordinators and instructors regularly communicate to students that their presence matters and tell students how much they are missed when they are absent. “The staff go out of their way to ensure that students know how important they are to the group,” says Sandy Diaz, who serves as the District 131 Parent Advocate and has served as site coordinator at Waldo.

To make families feel welcome, 21st CCLC staff use a range of strategies. The afterschool program offers regular family activities that are well attended, but staff also recognize that regular communication is key. For example, program staff make a point of being visible for student pickup at the end of the day so they can have those informal conversations with parents that are crucial to building relationships. They also make sure they call parents with good news and not just when there is a problem. “The key for families is constant communication, not only calling parents when students are absent, but also giving props to parents when their student is attending the program consistently, because it is their effort as well,” says Alfred Morales, who serves as the District 131 Parent and Community Involvement Coordinator and has served as the 21st CCLC’s project manager.

Site coordinators note that many of the families have been a part of the 21st CCLC program since it began operation in 2013. They say this represents the value students and their families find in the programming and the relationships they have built; the word of mouth communication helps the program recruit new participants. “Families trust us with their children and recommend our program to their neighbors and friends who also have children at our school,” says Allan Gonzalez, the site coordinator at Johnson Elementary School.

Working with school-day staff is also an integral part of maintaining student attendance and overall program success. The 21st CCLC team works with school-day staff to identify students who would benefit from the program. In addition, each site aligns programming with the goals of the school where it is located and shares data and other information about student attendance and progress.

The program aims to have students attend regularly, or 30 or more days, during the year and afterschool staff make sure students know this. “At the beginning of the program we tell students that this is a commitment and they should be ready to commit to the entire length of a program,” says Jessica Fisher, the academic coordinator at Waldo. “This is not a drop in, drop out program, so expectations are set early with the students.” The program also has a policy that students must attend school during the day to participate in the afterschool program in the afternoon. Finally, the team offers incentives and awards such as movies and other fun activities for students who meet attendance and academic goals. Of the 1,129 students who attended afterschool in the 2016–17 school year, 932 met the program’s goal of regular attendance

When asked how afterschool practitioners can encourage student attendance in afterschool and the school day, many of the District 131 team members described a supportive environment where students could learn and develop. “Don’t think of it as just an ‘afterschool program,’” says Fisher. “Think of it as a commitment to the success of a child as a whole. . . . It is important for kids to understand [that afterschool] is a safe place, not just for doing homework but for making friends and building relationships with peers and staff who want to see them be successful.”