Hidden Cleveland

Big City University provides academic enrichment, fun

By CHRISTY ARMSTRONG  christy.armstrong@clevelandbanner.com
Posted 3/6/17

The afternoon routine looks much the same for some local students each day.

They leave school on a school bus, and they return home to an empty house.

However, things look a little …

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Hidden Cleveland

Big City University provides academic enrichment, fun


The afternoon routine looks much the same for some local students each day.

They leave school on a school bus, and they return home to an empty house.

However, things look a little different for those attending Big City University, Bradley County Schools’ after school program for at-risk students.

BCU Director Stephanie Reffner explained that the program emphasizes fun while also helping students stay caught up on their learning.

“We focus on character education, academics and on building and growing the community,” Reffner said.

BCU operates as a 21st Century Community Learning Center, funded by a U.S. Department of Education grant. Because of its status as a Bradley County Schools program, BCU is solely for children attending the 11 county elementary schools.

Currently, about 150 students in grades K-5 attend BCU. With limited space and resources available, Reffner said BCU’s leaders are careful to accept into the program the students who need it the most.

“Most of our students — some 89 to 92 percent of them — are on free or reduced lunch plans at school, meaning they come from low-income homes,” Reffner said. “We also have accepted students who are failing two or more subjects, or those who simply need more academic enrichment.”

Rather than allowing parents to apply to the in-demand after-school program, BCU works with the staff at the elementary schools to find its students. When teachers and principals see a student would benefit from an after-school program like BCU, they can talk to the parents about having the student enrolled.

Each school day, buses pick students up from their schools and take them directly to North Cleveland Church of God, where BCU is held.

The first thing on the students’ afternoon schedule is often snack time. Reffner said BCU staffers try to provide students with filling snacks that can stick with them for a while. One recent afternoon, children were being offered both chicken nuggets and applesauce.

“Hunger is a real issue for some of our students at home,” Reffner said. “Some of them will not have another meal until they go have breakfast at their schools in the morning.”

After snack time, students are given 45 minutes to work with tutors who can assist them with whatever homework they have that day. If a student does not have homework, he or she still spends time with a tutor practicing skills like reading or math, sometimes with games.

Each tutor is typically paired with two or three students. However, Reffner said tutors sometimes work one-on-one with students who need extra support. For example, she explained one tutor is “working really intensely” one struggling student — a third-grader who reads on a kindergarten level.

Students in the program are divided into different groups by grade level, and tutoring is followed by groups going to different enrichment classes.

Classes taught by BCU staff members cover a variety of subjects. To make things a little more fun, each of the teachers dresses up as a character.

For example, science class is taught by a bespectacled scientist named Eva Genius. A few doors down, an artistic outdoorsman named Jack Lumber teachers students about art. Another teacher, Jim Nasium, leads students in a variety of physical education activities.

One recent afternoon saw students in science class working with small robots, while students in the art class were learning to draw using single-point perspective.

In addition to other classes, a character named Techy Becky oversees children as they play educational games in a computer lab.

Reffner explained staff at BCU try to present classes which support what students are learning in school, while also making the classes interesting for children.

The special planning does not go unnoticed by the students, as some eagerly explained the activities they get to do in their favorite BCU classes. While they do have to complete their homework, the students explained there is still room for fun.

“You can work on things like reading. At school, you don’t really have a lot of time for practicing things like that,” said fifth-grade Brooklyn Mayes. “Here, you can work on things like that, and you still get to have fun.”

Mayes said her favorite part of the program is when she gets to do fun science experiments with other students. Another highlight each week is “rally time,” when all the age groups get together for activities centered on character education.

Fellow BCU fifth-grader Mekhi Kalaukoa said he likes that he gets help with his homework and can also take part in educational games — his favorite being “hangman” using spelling words — and activities like basketball.

“You get to do a lot of good stuff,” Kalaukoa said.

Some students say they see BCU as a good way to get help with their homework or a good way to take part in fun activities. However, Reffner noted being part of a program like BCU is making more of a difference for the children than they can recognize right now.

The director explained she has had parents tell her story after story about how students have begun doing better in school. Surveys given to teachers also indicate the extra attention students are getting after school is helping them when they are in school.

However, Reffner explained another benefit is students getting to interact with caring adults who cheer students on and help them with their learning.

One of the program’s team leaders, Zane Smith, said he is a living example of what investing in children like that can mean. Though he is now in a leadership role as a young adult, he is also a former Big City University student.

“It was really cool, because my parents both worked,” Smith said. “I had people help me with my homework after school, which meant I could just have quality time with my parents in the evening after they got off work — instead of doing homework then.”

The Walker Valley High School graduate and current Cleveland State Community College student said getting that homework help did help him excel in school.

However, it also gave him a support system which allowed him to see the value of building positive relationships with students.

“The people that are here really try to help students,” Smith said. “We actually try to teach them here and let them know we care.”

Smith said he now believes he “is called to” Christian youth ministry, and he likes that his work at BCU is allowing him to begin working with students.

BCU is largely staffed by part-time staff members who serve in multiple roles, and Reffner noted many of the program’s part-time staff members are college students like Smith.

“The beauty of our program being here [at North Cleveland] is we’re practically sitting on the Lee University campus,” Reffner said. “We have access to many education majors who are studying to become teachers, and we have had staff from Cleveland State and other colleges as well.”

Reffner quipped that BCU has been a training ground for students and teachers alike. She added many of BCU’s former college student staff members and interns are now employed in both the Cleveland and Bradley County school systems.

“People say this sort of thing a lot, but it really is a win-win,” Reffner said. “We are building up tomorrow’s leaders in more ways than one.”

For more information about BCU, visit http://www.bigcityuniversity.org.


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