News from the Field: Valley View School District 365U Launches Five 21st CCLC Programs

Making decisions that are good for children is the philosophy at the heart of the 21st CCLC program at Valley View School District 365U. That focus drove the effort to launch a new 21st CCLC program with five sites in a short time frame during the COVID-19 pandemic so that the district could be more responsive to students who needed additional support. Key to the quick implementation was communicating with, and building the support of, the district, partners, and families, according to 21st CCLC project director Alfred Morales.

When Morales came to Valley View as the administrator for Family and Community Engagement three years ago, the district had been focusing primarily on childcare during afterschool hours. Morales, who previously served as a site director and project director with other 21st CCLC programs for 15 years, saw an opportunity to improve afterschool programming in the district. “[The 21st CCLC program] means academic enrichment and engagement,” says Morales.


The Need for 21st CCLC Programming

In December 2020, Valley View was among the new cohort of grantees who learned that they had received funding for their 21st CCLC program. The team began preparing to launch sites at four elementary schools and one middle school.

Many Valley View students were struggling with online learning for reasons that resonated across the nation: Families often lacked the technology or the supports needed to use the technology that enabled students to participate in virtual education; many parents had to go to work, so students were sometimes left unsupervised; and students were not engaged—they missed the personal connections at school. Because of these challenges, these students were losing ground academically.


Preparing to Launch

The school district decided to offer hybrid learning during the spring semester, focusing on students who had been the least engaged with online learning in the fall to be the first to return to school for in-person instruction. The 21st CCLC team wanted to recruit these same students to participate in the afterschool program. They scrambled to recruit students and staff and to coordinate the partner programming—not to mention getting supplies for each student, since supplies could not be shared, and setting up the space according to COVID-19 protocols.

Key to the quick program implementation was communicating with, and building the support of, the district, partners, and families.

During planning and recruitment, the 21st CCLC team communicated regularly with the district administrators, school staff, and partners. According to Morales, it is important to convey everything about the program—the expectations, the goals, the required reporting, and the high-quality standards of the 21st CCLC program. Teachers at the school sites identified what their students needed most. For example, at this point in the pandemic, social and emotional learning (SEL) was of the utmost importance, as was science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) support. Peer-to-peer support was also important, as the teachers wanted to build community among the students.

Those needs, and the professional development regarding those needs, helped drive conversations with Valley View District 365U partners. The district had many partners that the 21st CCLC team could tap, but according to Morales, many were not operating as they had before the pandemic. Still, the 21st CCLC engaged 11 partners to provide enrichment and extracurricular activities as well as professional development beyond what the district offered. The professional development included topics on STEM, trauma-informed teaching, cultural awareness, and SEL, along with substantial CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and first aid training because of COVID-19.


Afterschool Programming Begins

  • 220 students served at five sites
  • 27 staff members employed
  • 11 partners provided 666 hours of programming
  • 1:5.6 ratio staff to students

The Valley View 21st CCLC program welcomed students for in-person programming on March 9, 2021, with the spring semester program running 12 weeks. Students participated in academic enrichment and tutoring, as well as the SEL and STEM activities for which the 21st CCLC team had prepared. Students also had the opportunity to forge those important connections with classmates and caring adults that they had missed during online learning. The program then ran for four weeks during the summer. In addition to academic enrichment, students enjoyed swimming; activities like bucket relays and launching rockets; field trips that included visiting a stable; and arts and crafts, such as making tie-dyed tee shirts and slime and working with beads.

“Looking back, it seems crazy,” says Morales. “We were all stretched—we were mentally tired and physically tired. But, looking back, I am really proud. We had support from the district administration, principals, teachers, and staff—the support just trickles down.”


Rave Reviews for the Program

Initial program evaluations show that families and students were pleased with the 21st CCLC program. Staff from the partner organizations also witnessed changes among the students, including improved social and emotional and communication skills, as well as increased confidence. On the end-of-year performance report submitted to the Illinois State Board of Education, teachers indicated that more than 50% of the students were believed to have shown academic improvement to some extent, from the time programming was implemented in March to the time the school year concluded.

Ninety-six percent of parents reported satisfaction with Valley View’s 21st CCLC afterschool program.

As one parent reported to site coordinator Kathleen Barney, “The 21st Century [Community Learning Center] program has helped [my son] to become more self-aware and confident in himself and his abilities. I’ve noticed even a small change in his drive to be more responsible.”

Barney herself has nothing but praise for the program. “I could write a short novel of my love for and how much I believe in our 21st CCLC program,” she says. Barney says that at her school, Bernard J. Ward, “We ended up naming our program ‘Wildcat Connections’ because our students were craving connections with their peers and teachers.” The focus on SEL was much needed, she explains. “We had providers that came in [and] helped students work together with talking through their emotions and how they were handling all of the change from the pandemic.”

Alfred Morales, who has been affiliated with 21st CCLC programs for more than 15 years, has these tips for new grantees:

  • Communication is key. You must be able to explain the requirements, describe high-quality programming, and articulate desired outcomes of the 21st CCLC afterschool program to the district administrators, school staff, partners, and parents to get them on board.

  • Assess the needs of the students you will serve. Their needs should drive your decisions about academic and enrichment activities as well as professional development for afterschool staff.
  • Leverage partnerships already forged in the district. If these partners do not meet the needs of the students you serve, find new partners who can.
  • Center the needs of youth and families. All stakeholders need to understand the importance of flexibility and patience. They also should be willing to commit to the program in full, even after the grant funding ends.
  • Remain sensitive to family needs. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the lives of many families—approach them with empathy and understanding.

Barney also thinks off-site field trips to Campfire, Pelican Harbor, and the Children’s Museum gave the students a sense of normalcy. She says, “The program’s success is evident through the excitement of students wanting to attend and their confidence and growth academically and socially.”

Although starting the program later in the semester wasn’t ideal, it allowed the program time to be more responsive to district and family needs. The delay also helped Valley View prepare more strategically for the 2021 fall semester. Most of the teachers involved in the afterschool program have said they want to be involved again when 21st CCLC programming starts up in October. And the 21st CCLC team is leveraging its role in the district to plan ahead for partnerships, physical space, supplies, and activities.

Morales says, “The pandemic taught us to be more flexible. What you are doing in September may not be the same as in October. You have to watch the budget more carefully, but you still need to make decisions that benefit the children.”