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Power in numbers: Afterschool program unites minds, ambitions

Date: 
Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Teachers in Waterloo’s high schools were alarmed at what they were seeing: Too many students receiving special education services were getting into trouble outside school.

“Some of the students on IEPs were being swept into the correctional system or becoming disengaged,” said Amy Alfrey, Waterloo’s special education coordinator. “We were wondering, ‘what is causing this?’”

So teachers from the city’s high schools got together. There was something missing in the students’ lives, a link, perhaps, that would successfully bring them back into the school system. And through no twist of words, the Link was born, an afterschool program designed to infuse school with real-world examples.

“We realized that the missing link was that they didn’t feel connected to the schools,” Alfrey said.

“They needed something to belong to, they needed some caring adults and peers.”

Today, some 24 students from East and West high schools participate in Link, in which the program’s title has even morphed into a verb: “are we linking today?”

While the high schools initially had their own individual programs, the students threw the longstanding intra-district rivalry aside to combine the programs.

“The kids preferred it,” Alfrey said.

And they do.

At a recent Link meeting, sophomores Alexis Jones, Chris Lien, Shareese Gamblin and Zavyon Nix were planning the upcoming year’s activities. As facilitators – now done by students instead of teachers – they have chosen this year’s theme: “Focus on the Future.”

“It’s an easy way for us to show everything we’re doing,” Chris said.

And it’s the future that guides these students. Link takes them off campus, visiting all sorts of businesses and doing all sorts of activities – things they indeed will need in life, from opening a checking account to asking for a job application. They also go to the middle schools to explain to peers what high school is like in hopes of allaying fears. It keeps the students busy, excited – and learning the social, or soft skills required to be successful in life.

“One of the biggest things I see is that socially they are doing a lot better than the students who are not participating,” said Katie Kimber, transitions facilitator in the district.

“It is a lot easier for them to get jobs or a job interview, or asking for accommodations in college – they practice that in here at Link.”

Krista Pugh, the special education instructional coach at East, said social skills should not be discounted in a student’s education.

“You need social skills in everything you do in life,” she said. “You need them for employment, you need them for relationships.”

And bonus: The newfound connection to school has improved the students’ academics.

“I see where the kids started, and feel like they are totally transformed,” Kimber said. “A graduate who was plugged in all the time listening to music and head down and wasn’t talking to anyone. Now she is engaged with others, and I’m so excited that she has that – it is something she’ll have for the rest of the life.”

Something the students notice is a confidence they lacked just a year ago.

“The Link helps me out of my shyness,” Alexis said. “I had a problem around big groups and just wanted to stay at home and be by myself in my own room. Now I am learning how to be around other people and having fun. I look forward to coming to the meetings because I get to meet new students and new people and get to know what they are like.”

For Zavyon, the Link keeps his life safe and productive.

“It gives me more stuff to do after school,” he said. “Before I was at home playing video games. The Link keeps me off the streets.”

The afterschool program also establishes a new social network.

“For me, it means a time to get away from the family and be with people who have the same similarities and interests as me,” Chris said. “I really enjoy it because most of the time I am uptight and serious about getting my school work done. Being here I can be calm and enjoy things.”

The Link for Shareese has given her a new perspective on her life.

“The Link has made me more successful,” Shareese said. “It makes me feel like it’s pushing me more in life. It gets me off the street and helps me do more. It keeps me out of trouble and gets me out of the home instead of watching TV. It makes me think more. My parents say I have changed; I’ve been talking to them about what I want to do – I never used to before. This makes me care about school and about my future.”

There’s plenty to plan for the upcoming school year, but one thing is definite: The students will host a picnic party for friends, family and teachers at the end of the school year in which they do everything from menu selection to cooking.

“It is something they did last year and really liked it,” Krista said. “It was quite successful.”

And today, dreams that may have gone unrealized now seem within arm’s reach. Shareese is thinking about college and pursuing a medical career. Zavyon likes working with his hands, and is looking to the engineering field. Alexis is looking at more immediate needs, like studying for her driver’s permit. And Chris envisions becoming a cartoonist.

“I am thinking about being an artist and writer – perhaps be a cartoonist based on our cats and my sister and my brother,” he said. “The cats have great personalities.”

Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on April 17, 2014 at 7:09am.