Bradley County’s public after-school program for at-risk children has received a commitment for funding for the next three years and is getting ready to kick off its 11th year.
Big City University is a program run by the county school system that offers tutoring and a range of other activities for children following classes every Monday through Thursday.
The federally funded school program will begin Sept. 15 with a smaller budget than originally anticipated, said BCU Director Stephanie Reffner.
BCU will be funded for the next three years under a federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant that provides $340,000 per year, totaling over $1 million for the three-year grant period.
While Reffner said that still sounds like a lot of money, she explained that the amount actually represents a cut of a little over $180,000, compared to last year’s amount.
She said funding at that high level is needed to keep the program fully staffed, pay for the students’ transportation needs and provide other activities and materials.
“It takes a lot of staff,” Reffner said, explaining how BCU tries to keep a small student-staff ratio for its activities.
While the program does welcome some volunteer tutors, it operates with a core staff of people working with it every day.
Each day, children are bused in from their schools, and Reffner said paying for that service alone costs about $76,000 per year.
While Reffner said the cut meant starting the program later in the school year than usual, about a week later, she and other BCU staff expressed excitement for the coming school year that for them starts in September.
Big City University allows 150 at-risk elementary school children to take part in an after-school program tailored to their needs.
Students in kindergarten through fifth grade are referred to the program from their schools’ principals.
The program is open to all students in the Bradley County Schools system, but priority goes to those who are seen as at-risk because of factors like their families’ economic status or them failing in school. Reffner said 87 percent of the students who attended last year were said to be “economically disadvantaged.”
Beginning with tutoring and continuing with a range of other activities, an afternoon at BCU does not look like a typical school day.
“We target in on creativity,” Reffner said. “We do things in a high-energy, fun way.”
Taking place at North Cleveland Church of God, the program utilizes a gym and a variety of themed children’s rooms to teach students everything from art to physical education.
The three-hour afternoon generally begins with 45 minutes of tutoring. With help from volunteers like education majors at Lee University and interns at the Behaviorial Research Center, Reffner said the program has been able to create a situation in which one tutor helps the same three or four students for the entire year.
Students and their tutors work on the day’s homework. The program communicates with local teachers to find out what is being taught in class at a given time, and a student can receive help with general concepts if no specific homework was assigned that day.
Reffner described the tutoring aspect of the program as being “vital” to how students do in school because many of the children would otherwise be going home to empty houses where no help would be available.
However, the other activities offered also give students the chance to do things that get them working in a more hands-on way.
Students rotate from room to room taking part in activities ranging from art to music to science. At certain points, the program has been able to use a church kitchen and lead students in a cooking project.
““They get to do things that are sometimes lacking in school,” said Michelle Saint-Loth, who works with BCU as a counselor.
Saint-Loth pointed out that the program offers a way for children to take part in activities like art that may not be offered in school because of a lack of funding. Activities range from simple craft projects to drama skits.
All this takes place in rooms the church designed with specific themes. A “lab” fit for a mad scientist sits down the hall from a room centered around an ancient Egyptian theme.
BCU has embraced those themes by having the teachers dress up in costumes and take on pseudonyms to fit the places they teach. A teacher known as Ms. Dot Com leads activities in a computer lab stocked with new computers installed over the summer. Dr. Nelly Neutron leads students in science experiments.
Reffner said a common misconception about BCU is that it is a church program. Though it is not, she said she was grateful for being able to use North Cleveland Church of God for the program.
“The church has been so generous offering this to us,” Reffner said.
Because of the limited space, she explained attendance is strongly emphasized, and parents are asked to take part in one activity each quarter. Activities ranging from game nights to fall festivals occur on a regular basis to allow families to get involved with the program.
Since the program focuses on at-risk children, there are also programs offered to help with problems like behaviorial issues. With their parents’ permissions, students can take part in the “Special Friends” program in conjunction with the Behaviorial Research Institute. Children are assigned “special friends,” adult staff and volunteers who serve as mentors and can get to know each student and listen to their concerns.
Saint-Loth said “Special Friends” like herself sometimes have days full of high-fives and laughter, but sometimes there are discussions about how it is not OK to bite someone if you get angry.
She said they work with the children to cultivate good behaviors now so they may not have to deal with issues like anger management when they get older.
“If they can get that now, hopefully they can retain that information,” Saint-Loth said.
Parenting classes are also offered for parents, and Reffner said the emphasis is on giving parents the tools they need to be even better. She said the program is not there to judge their parenting styles — just to help them improve.
Reffner said all that the after-school program is able to offer has given it the reputation of being one of the Bradley County school system’s “best-kept secrets.”
She invited any parents of Bradley County students to contact their schools if they would like to learn more about it, or claim a spot on the waiting list.