Program Profile: CATS Academy Helps All Learners Find Success

Like all 21st CCLC programs, CATS (Collectively Aiming Towards Success) Academy of Christopher Unit School District 99 offers academic enrichment for the students who attend the program. Serving some 115 sixth through eighth graders from Christopher Elementary School, a small rural school in Southern Illinois, the 21st CCLC keeps youth engaged through a variety of activities. In addition to art classes, jujitsu, and robotics, the program also provides targeted supports to students who are below grade level or at risk of failing a class.

The 21st CCLC team works closely with school-day staff to learn about student needs and how best to support them. This includes regular in-person and email communication with classroom and special education teachers to discuss student progress and challenges. The 21st CCLC has set up an online Google spreadsheet through which teachers and 21st CCLC staff communicate daily. The spreadsheet contains fields where teachers can record information for each student, including assignments, challenges, and recommended supports that the afterschool program can provide. There is also a place in the spreadsheet where afterschool staff can record student progress and ask questions about student supports and school work.

This regular communication also helps the afterschool program provide continuity for students who receive special supports or modified assignments. “As the afterschool program is seen as an extension of the school day, all student accommodations are carried out in the afterschool time as well,” says project director Tiffanie Hobbs. Some of the afterschool staff are also certified teachers who work at the school or are teacher aides. “We are all very close and feel comfortable with open lines of communication between the program staff and the school-day teachers,” says Hobbs.

Hobbs and her team take advantage of the afterschool setting to provide more individualized support for students. “During the regular school day a class may have 30 students in it,” says Hobbs. “Our [afterschool] class sizes are kept small so that we can work closely with our students and go into more detail about a subject or reteach, if necessary, a concept. Students who are afraid to ask questions in class are able to tell the small group what they are not understanding and ask questions until they do understand.” 

For literacy enrichment, CATS Academy offers activities like book clubs. To accommodate different reading levels, afterschool staff provide a selection of books at different reading levels that address the same subject. Students then select a book that is appropriate for their reading level. After they read their respective books, they convene to discuss the topic. The team takes a similar approach to other English language arts activities, providing reading materials or articles on a variety of levels so that all students can participate. Students are also able to listen to audiobooks individually or in small groups as part of an enrichment activity or just for fun.

In addition to providing supports, afterschool instructors model reading strategies, such as visualizing a scene, applying prior knowledge, and making predictions. The afterschool staff incorporate literacy into a variety of activities so that students have an opportunity to practice skills. For example, CATS Academy created an escape room, where students have to complete challenges or solve a series of puzzles to leave the room. One of challenges required students to practice close reading and look for context clues to gain information needed to move on. “From close reading of directions to acting and drawing out stories, or listening to a book or article, the main intervention used is finding a strategy that our students can connect with and use in the future to make them feel confident in their reading abilities,” says Hobbs.

For math enrichment and support, CATS Academy staff focus on hands-on activities, using measuring cups to understand fractions, spinners and dice to learn about probability, geoboards to help students learn about shapes and perimeter, and manipulatives like fraction circles and tiles. The program also uses online apps that enable students to model and manipulate geometric figures. (See Afterschool Focus in this newsletter for a list of math resources.) As they do for literacy, the team integrates math into other enrichment games and activities. The escape room described above has included math activities, and the 21st CCLC offers activities such as robotics, which integrate math with other subject areas and allow students to make real-world connections. For both math and English language arts, students use i-Ready, an online assessment and instruction program that provides lessons and activities based on student learning needs. 

Although communication and different supports are important to helping struggling learners master new skills, Hobbs stresses that a supportive, trusting environment is key to helping all students take risks and learn. “The relationships that have been made between the afterschool staff and the students is incredible,” says Hobbs. “Watching students build confidence in a subject, having them come up to you and show you a good grade or, better yet, a report card . . . When you look at the grades at the beginning of the year and see what was once an F or a D is now a C or B, or even an A, it makes the extra hours worth it.”