Since 2015, the Afterschool Alliance has partnered with the Dollar General Literacy Foundation to distribute the Dollar General Afterschool Literacy Award to recognize an outstanding afterschool program that has provided literacy supports to its students. While there can only be one official award recipient, there are always so many programs that we wish we could honor and reward as well—Raider’s ARK (Academics Reinforcing Knowledge), located in Arcadia, Wisconsin, is one of these programs.
Arcadia is a small rural community in western Wisconsin with a population of around 3,000. Between 2000 and 2014, Arcadia’s Hispanic population rose from 3 percent to 35 percent, and this past year the Hispanic population in the public elementary school rose to 73 percent. As a result, the need for supports for English language learners has substantially grown.
Looking to include the program in our Dollar General afterschool literacy issue brief, we reached out to Nancy Boehm, the program coordinator for Raiders ARK, and had an amazing conversation about what makes Raider’s ARK so special, and how they support their students.
When Boehm joined, Raider’s ARK had been using a relatively unstructured program that prioritized homework support. That wasn’t where the future of program was heading.
“I am someone who likes a lot of organization and structure,” Boehm explained, “but that organization and structure should be focused on fun activities, where students know what is expected of them and have a safe and engaging place to be. There should be opportunities for enrichment, and learning, and continued learning, but for it not to look or feel or smell or sound like school, even though we are housed in a school building.”
Building support for students and families
Making Raider’s ARK distinct from the school day became essential to help students, many of them English language learners, open up and get involved. Fostering socialization between students across groups and grades and including families and communities in the program proved to have impressive results.
“We put students into ‘families’ for 4-6 weeks and they sit together at tables instead of sitting with the same friends they have been with all day. This way they get an opportunity to meet students in other grades. A lot of times those families are specifically designed for our ELL students to get some opportunities to spend time with kids who have further developed their language skills. It is a safe place for them to work on their English, as well as their social skills, and have some fun.
“I think family and community component is also key. Students’ families should feel very involved in the program which may mean some morning meetings, as well as afterschool and evening activities depending on shift work."
Raider’s ARK also reaches out with programming that serves their students’ family members. “We have English classes that we offer to parents at no charge that are sponsored by one of the businesses in our community. We have all sorts of parent programming that we offer that includes a meal and childcare for the little ones if a parent wants to be involved in an activity night and there is no one to watch younger siblings. We find ways the whole family can come and have a great evening at no expense.”
“Community and family participation that really supports students in a safe and welcoming environment: that is our focus, and that is where we hope to continue our efforts and make progress with our program.”
Building student choice to encourage youth leadership
Raider’s ARK offers students several opportunities to choose their enrichment activities, along with opportunities to explore new subjects.
“We bring in members of the community to show the kids something they like to do,” Boehm said. “We had a high school science chemistry teacher who came in and built rockets with the girls in our program, business community members come in and donate their services and supplies to make jewelry, and some small business owners come in and teach our students photography and computer programming. I think we get a lot of community buy-in because people can come in and show what they love to do, and then they are working with enthusiastic, well-behaved kids, it can be pretty powerful for everyone.”
In addition to activities that introduce kids to new subjects and potential interests, Raider’s ARK takes the time to make sure students feel that their voices are valued and heard.
“A lot of our students go home to parents that have already left for their second shift of work or who are sleeping or getting ready to start third shift work. There may have been things that happened during the day that made the kids so happy, but they don’t have someone to share it with. So we end our day with ‘daily joys,’ where all of the students gather in a circle and tell the group something that made them happy that particular day. It is a pretty powerful, pretty cool thing! We have students that have started our program with very little English and by the second day they are able to say, ‘My daily joy is…’ and share some detail of their day.”
To learn more about Raider’s ARK, check out their program spotlight.
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