In the United States, over 30% of middle schoolers are without adult supervision after school. In the first hour after school, juvenile crime rates triple compared to when school is still in session. While these statistics constitute the U.S. population in general, we have witnessed a number of kids within our own neighborhood who lack viable options of what to do with their time after school. When we first moved into Hopewell in 2008, our building was vandalized, broken into, and had even been burned in some places. The physical environment showed symptoms of the outlook on life in the neighborhood. Now, on any given day in Hopewell, you can find groups of young people riding their skateboards at our skatepark, playing a basketball game on our court, or playing a football game on our field. While we are thankful to provide venues where youth can enjoy safe recreation, we also recognize that it’s not enough. It's not enough because there is already a script written for these young people. Living in what some have claimed to be the worst neighborhood in Nashville, few expect the youth here to succeed.
This script is, however, slowly changing. Part of that change is coming through our newly launched after school program for students of Dupont Hadley Middle School called CASE (Character and Skills Education). CASE is a program of NAZA (Nashville After Zone Alliance), a system of free, high quality after school programs offered to Metro Nashville Public Schools’ middle school students. After learning about our summer youth program, Camp Skillz, a representative from NAZA approached our organization and inquired if we would be willing to partner with them as a host site. With a specialty in literacy in our undergraduate program at our Institute, we had already been looking for ways to utilize our skills to serve the surrounding community. After developing relationships with many of the youth in our neighborhood through Camp Skillz, we were eager to offer a program during the school year.
NAZA was specifically looking for locations within the McGavock school zone, where our headquarters are located. McGavock High School has the highest dropout rates in all of Nashville, graduating just 56% of its students in 2005. Those rates have since risen to the mid-seventies, in part because of the implementation of after school programs like NAZA. Such programs are pivotal because it is often during a student’s middle school years that they make decisions on whether or not they are “good” at school and whether or not they enjoy it. These decisions can largely determine a student’s success into their high school years.
The overarching goal of CASE is to provide a quality after school program that would both bridge the academic gap for students as well as expose them to a diverse array of enrichment activities. Tutors from our organization offer one-on-one academic assistance for students as they work on homework and gain literacy skills. Students also get the chance to practice and develop skills that they would not otherwise be exposed to. They have been able to participate in everything from drama to woodworking and gardening to cooking. Prior to CASE only one of the students in the program had ever spent time in a garden before. Not only have students been exposed to the gardening process, but they also had the opportunity to hand deliver produce to the widows within Hopewell, learning the value of caring for the elderly.
This week, CASE students invited their family and friends to “ShowCASE” an evening in which they highlighted many of the skills and activities that they have learned over the course of the semester. The students were responsible to facilitate the entire evening from designing the program to creating signs and providing refreshments. Students set up various stations where they performed magic tricks, made fresh salsa and smoothies, and displayed their toolboxes and lamps they built and designed during CASE. A highlight of the evening was watching the students perform a short drama which they had written themselves that addressed bullying and friendship. As students stood up to introduce themselves, each shared their favorite part of participating in CASE which ranged from new friendships to the opportunity to finish their homework.
Currently there are 15 middle school students enrolled in our program, as well as two high school students from our neighborhood who assist in tutoring. We are excited to participate in the lives of these students and to offer them the opportunity to thrive educationally. Students who initially said they would rather be at home playing video games and texting, are now coming to CASE every day, excited to learn. Recently a student known for having issues with focusing, proudly declared, “I finished!” upon completing a timed activity with the help of one of our tutors. We recognize that these small victories and shifts in academic enthusiasm can have lasting effects. We refuse to accept the script that’s been written for the young people in our neighborhood. Instead, we are writing a new story with them, one in which they can achieve their full potential.