News from the Field: Brighton Park Neighborhood Council 21st CCLC’s Successful High School Programming Keeps Students in School
In a traditionally working-class area of Southwest Chicago that has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC) 21st CCLC program has seen success with a demographic notoriously difficult to engage in afterschool programs—high school students. Even as families struggled and older students assumed family responsibilities and took on jobs, afterschool activities at the program’s Kelly Prep High School attracted 200 to 300 students during the school year and many more during the summer.
Most of the success of BPNC is attributable to programming that supports students both academically and emotionally, and appeals to their creativity in meaningful ways, including mixed martial arts, printmaking, illustration, and mariachi band. To help students deal with some of the stressors in their lives, both high school sites offer a wellness group facilitated by clinical staff. “It’s just kind of a club where you can come in, hang out, talk about anything that’s going on, whether it’s like social justice or just things that are happening at home and involves really building relationships with each other,” says Maricela Bautista, program director for the BPNC 21st CCLC programs.
Mariachi band practice
Bautista says that currently the afterschool program is targeting freshmen and sophomores because the pandemic has had a greater impact on them, as they were new to high school when the pandemic began. Students begin with a Freshman Connection summer program for rising ninth graders, a crucial time to keep students on track in school. The curriculum is academic but includes plenty of activities for students to get to know one another and their teachers. The BPNC team takes the students on field trips to local colleges, too. “We want to start getting students to think about college even as freshmen,” says Bautista.
One of their most successful initiatives in the afterschool program is the college mentoring program. College students who previously attended Kelly mentor and tutor the high school students. Their similar backgrounds and near-peer status make it easy for high school students to open up. Also, the influence of college-going students is important.
“I’m very happy with the help my son receives. I can’t always help him with homework as I sometimes don’t understand myself. I’m very grateful for BPNC and Kelly.”
—Maria Flores, Parent
“We really have set up a space for student[s] to be able to talk about any academic help they need. And, also, if they’re going through anything in their lives, we’ll connect them to the right resources,” Bautista adds. She points out that the mentors are trained in trauma-informed practices before they begin the program so that they can respond to sensitive topics. These robust offerings reflect the BPNC team’s understanding that it must foster positive relationships and address social and emotional needs before students can fully engage in academic activities. Because students trust program staff and their peers, they are more likely to ask staff for support, and they and their families are more likely to access additional services from BPNC.
“Our afterschool programs have helped my students utilize their leadership and communication skills. For example, they are required to communicate with staff and other students that they do not see on a daily basis. This pushes them out of their comfort zone and tests their leadership skills.”
—Jadan Salgado, Skills USA Instructor and Kelly College Prep Teacher
Teacher Involvement and Buy-In Is Key
Most of the BPNC classes and afterschool programming are taught by teachers, especially at the high schools. There are usually 10 to 15 teachers at each high school afterschool program, plus three full-time staff. The programming provides opportunities for students to strengthen their relationships with teachers, who can support the students academically but also connect families to resources. The 21st CCLC evaluation data provide strong evidence, showing that students participating in the BPNC afterschool programs stay in school at a higher rate than students who do not participate.
Bautista explains that having teachers onboard is important to the success of afterschool. “The teachers already have a relationship with the students so they can encourage them to jump online or stay after school for a class or two. And we have the most success in those classes,” says Bautista.
Holistic Services Engage Students and Families
The program also offers holistic services for students and their families, which are often mixed households that include at least one undocumented wage earner. “That creates a need for a complex set of strategies to address the needs of the families,” said Patrick Brosnan, executive director of the BPNC 21st CCLC program. In addition to academic and enrichment programming for students, BPNC offers classes and workshops for parents as well as resource assistance and referral for basic needs like housing or health care. One example includes a BPNC fundraiser during the height of the pandemic to raise money for undocumented caregivers who were not qualified to receive stimulus checks. The fundraiser provided $500 to families who were hardest hit by the pandemic and had not received school supports for computers and internet access to participate in virtual instruction.
Each 21st CCLC site has a parent coordinator who stays in touch with families and helps plan afterschool classes for parents that include Zumba and other fitness classes, Dads with Guitars, and workshops on topics like nutrition and healthy eating. To better engage with their diverse community, the BPNC distributes communications in multiple languages—Mandarin, Spanish, and English. Through this range of services and outreach strategies, the BPNC team has laid the foundation for trusting relationships among 21st CCLC staff, students, and their families.
These strong relationships and BPNC’s wraparound services have helped students stay engaged in school and the afterschool program. Bautista shared an example of one student who had been slipping under the radar at Kelly and was being bullied a lot during the school day. As a result, the student began skipping school and getting behind academically. The student joined an afterschool art class and was able to develop a good relationship with the art teacher. They began opening up to the teacher about the bullying problems they were experiencing and also about some current family issues that included housing insecurity. As a result, they were able to give the student and the student’s family needed support to help turn things around.
Another high school student was missing a lot of school because the student’s working mom, who was also a single parent, couldn’t leave work to pick up one of her younger children from school, so the high school student was leaving school early to help with their younger sibling. Brosnan explained, “Because we have a partnership with the other schools providing those kinds of programs [to younger students], we were able to enroll the student’s siblings in . . . our afterschool programs at that school. And then [we] worked with the mom and connect[ed] the mom to additional services. So, the student was able to stay at high school and didn’t have to miss any classes—their grades picked up as well. These concerns and needs that we see, are the reasons why we do what we do in afterschool.”