Program Profile: Park Forest-Chicago Heights X-STEAM 21st CCLC Sets Thermostat for Program Climate

The Park Forest-Chicago Heights X-STEAM 21st CCLC program aims to support students facing the rigor of high school preparatory coursework that will increase their readiness for college or an innovative career in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) subjects. Closing the gender gap to ensure more females in STEAM careers is also part of the program's goals. Serving some 400 students in second through eighth grade, X-STEAM provides three tiers of support for students: homework assistance, academic tutoring in reading and math, and hands-on STEAM activities. Visual and performing arts and social-emotional learning are also integrated into these activities.

Underscoring academic and enrichment activities is a commitment to positive climate for everyone involved. “X-STEAM considers a positive afterschool climate as one designed with the whole child in mind,” says project manager Renee Hawthorne, “and we are intentional in our student-centered community approach.” A commitment to providing a safe and supportive environment is spelled out in the 21st CCLC’s mission and belief statements. Program leadership share these expectations with staff and students but also know that posting values and norms does not automatically produce a positive climate. “Although education is at the forefront of our minds, our program is intentional in developing a rapport with its students,” says Hawthorne, noting that one of her team’s program’s mottos is “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care!” “Once that rapport is established, then the students will aim to please,” she says.

Student and staff input are an important part of the program’s climate. The 21st CCLC staff seek feedback from staff, parents, and students through annual surveys. The program also has a youth commission that meets with the program manager to give feedback and suggestions on programming. The students voice their concerns and, in most cases, the staff can find a happy medium to accommodate their needs. For example, the basketball team at one of the middle schools won the state championship, which sparked a strong desire for X-STEAM students to want to play basketball. Hawthorne met with the local Parks and Recreation Department, and with the department’s support, X-STEAM was able to offer basketball as an enrichment option. The students even had an opportunity to play against members of the staff from Village of Park Forest Police Department.

Student-centered programming also means helping students develop confidence and other social and emotional skills. Saturday activities are focused on developing leadership skills, and students are also invited to attend district board meetings several times a year to showcase their talents and skills. X-STEAM also offers activities from the NED Show to help students develop social and emotional skills. The NED Show is an international schoolwide character education program, whose foundational ideas form the program’s acronym: never give up, encourage others, and do your best.

Scheduling and logistics can also play a role in the program’s climate. X-STEAM offers 28 weeks of programming during the school year but noticed that both staff and students struggled to keep a 28-week commitment. The 21st CCLC leadership divided school-year programming into three sessions and let both staff and students commit to a single session. This scheduling change has resulted in consistent attendance and a boost in engagement.

Family engagement is also a key part of offering a positive climate. This includes a welcoming environment and ongoing programming for parents; however, there is also targeted programming to support parents in developing positive relationships. For example, this year the program offered a parent workshop called “Helpful Tools and Tips to Building Whole-Family and School Relationships,” which had more than 100 participants.

Attendance and engagement reflect the culture and climate of X-STEAM, but past participants have also stayed connected to the program. Because Park Forest-Chicago Heights has held multiple 21st CCLC grants, the program now hires high school students who were once program participants. This practice allows the program to get additional youth input and provide near-peer mentoring relationships for students in the program. In addition, the high school students who work there gain job experience that will prepare them for life after high school and that they can include on their resumes.

For 21st CCLC leaders who want to improve the climate of their afterschool program, Hawthorne has this advice. “Think of yourself as a thermostat and not a thermometer,” she says. “A thermometer takes the temperature and adapts to whatever environment it is placed in to read the temperature. A thermostat, on the other hand, sets the temperature and can adjust based on the need and the desired outcome.”