Kenny Cats & Clubs is 21st Century funded after school program at the Thomas J. Kenny Elementary School. The program was recently transformed in concept and practice, and is staffed entirely by teachers and school day professionals. This year, Kenny Cats offered programming every day for K1 through 5th graders, including homework help and a variety of special interest clubs and centers, including book club, music, Let’s Make It, yoga, tae kwon do, and more. Soon, clubs will be generated by student interests as well as staff interests and skills. 

Key Takeaways

  • It is a priority to ensure after school staff reflects the language and culture of the student body, and that participation is accessible to every student, no matter age or need for academic support.

  • There is value in a shared experience with a trusted adult outside of their regular context, such as seeing their homeroom teacher playing guitar or sharing a poem they wrote.

  • Use student and family feedback to ensure the after school program meets the needs of the community and ultimately ensure that students are happy.

How does your program build upon learned skills? Is the program project based, for example?

We are training up to implement more project based learning and service learning in the coming years. We try to make sure we offer options for students. We want to expose them to new hobbies, encouraging them to take risks and try new things. It may seem that there is not one specific skill that could be transferred from activity to activity, but since receiving a social and emotional learning (SEL) grant from the Wallace Foundation, we focus on transference of SEL skills in different situations. We make sure students are using conflict resolution strategies, and we try to use SEL language consistently throughout activities. We reinforce healthy routines, so we make sure we get homework done in a quiet, structured environment, and then engage in enrichment. We try to help students understand themselves, their strengths, and their needs in different contexts through conversation and varied experiences. “I know that I can do ____ in basketball really well, but now I’m in soccer, and what does that mean about myself and my skills?”

How are students encouraged to persevere outside the context of the program?

We reflect on why we are talking about skills like this. Why are we talking about perseverance? It’s part of our Kenny Pledge: I persevere. I don’t give up when things get tough. The kids know that, but we try to show them it’s more than just finishing your schoolwork even when it’s hard. We build background knowledge of the working world. What happens outside of our building locally and globally? We share culturally relevant examples of people the students know and can identify with. This is one reason we are moving toward project based and service learning. How can we take these skills and do something that impacts someone beyond ourselves? We walk with kids about what they can do at home using what they’ve learned in school. They can help their friends and family members. We talk about why it matters and ask, “What would happen if we didn’t do these things?” We help them think in the small picture, like solving a difficult math problem, and bigger picture about what is happening in their world.

What challenges do students face in the program and what tools do you provide for them to help them overcome those challenges?

We focus on growth mindset and seeing mistakes as opportunities. Kids should know they’re not expected to know how to do everything perfectly and that we’re here to learn together. Sometimes they have unrealistic expectations of what’s expected of them, so we have to establish that clearly. We talk about people who have overcome similar challenges. How did they do it? How can we do it? Their number one challenge after school is exhaustion. Many of our students are at school from 7:30am to 6:00pm, which is longer than some adult work days. I believe that if we really want to model strong SEL skills like self-regulation, we should be honest that every person gets exhausted. It is possible to be a tired wreck in a safe way, and what you want in that moment is to feel supported and understood. We support students by building relationships with them. Kids don’t necessarily know themselves yet, so we have to help them figure out what they need and unpack their frustration. We have refocus spaces in each classroom which serve as a de-escalation place. Students can go there and use self-calming strategies or take a break if they need. That’s a consistent practice in every classroom so no matter where students are in the program they can utilize that.

What do you find to be the most effective way to encourage students not to give up when faced with a challenge or set back?

Every morning during the school day we have a homeroom block where we hold circles, and we focus on a different skill each month. Based off feedback in SAYO surveys and APT observations, we decided we should make that a practice in after school as well. The after school program has a little bit more leeway with what they talk about during circles. We ask them for a rose and thorn (a high and low) of their day. After school circles are only 10-15 students, which is smaller than a homeroom, so students feel comfortable to bring up conflicts or issues. We’ve had students use role playing to act out situations. If two students had a conflict the previous day on the soccer field, we might pick two different students to role play a similar situation and have the class generate ideas on how to work through that. We’ve had a lot of conversations about empathy, putting yourself in others’ shoes and understanding what that means through guided, open-ended questions. “What would you do if this happened? How would you say ___? How could you show or do ___ skill in another context?” Hopefully they will recognize that they have options the next time they face a challenge.