Faces of CIS: Erin Phillips connects students to virtual after-school programs to keep them engaged
Updated: Jan 31
As extended school-building closures seemed inevitable due to the growing COVID-19 crisis, Erin Phillips, M.Ed., 21st CCLC Program Manager at CIS of Eastern PA, knew she had to adapt her after-school programs to keep kids engaged - even as they grew tired of screens and virtual lessons.
21st Century Community Learning Centers
Before the global pandemic forced school doors shut, Erin was used to lively classrooms filled with students and support staff at Raub Middle School, Trexler Middle School, and William Allen High School, where she coordinates enriching after-school programs at three 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) in the Allentown School District.
21st CCLC after-school programs are funded in full or in part by a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, and they connect students to safe and healthy out-of-school experiences at no cost to families four days per week for three hours every day.
After-school programs in a digital classroom
As students continued to lose in-person access to their peers, teachers, and essential resources, Erin wanted to give something back to her students instead of taking more away. She began virtualizing her after-school programs, combining various technologies and resources before launching a new digital program ready for students who were beginning a virtual 2020-2021 school year in the Allentown School District. Erin couldn't predict how students would respond to the new after-school programs, especially as many were already fatigued from screen-time, but their responses have been overwhelming positive.
"The students and staff of 21st CCLC have worked together to create a virtual learning community," said Erin. "We didn't know if students would want to spend extra time on their computers for an after-school program, but the staff and I are overwhelmed about the dedication our students have to 21st CCLC. It has become a place where students are supported not only academically but also socially.
Much of Erin's success so far is owed to her mindset in letting student's guide the content and curriculum of their after-school programs. "Students can share what they are interested in learning and the staff develop lessons for them based on those interests," shared Erin. The 21st CCLC team offers consistent academic support, enrichment activities, and social-emotional learning skills to students, but many activities are tailored to student feedback:
Small breakout sessions to help with school work
Painting and drawing lessons
Math and word games
For projects that require extra supplies, the 21st CCLC team makes sure students have everything they need, delivering packs of school supplies and art materials to after-school program students at the beginning of the school year. For special events, like the program's annual holiday cookie exchange, Erin led staff and students in creating a custom cookbook before they delivered baking ingredients to students' homes, so they could safely keep the tradition alive with their families.
After-school programs connect students to caring adults
Erin notes that consistent conversations and check-ins with her after-school team of caring adults make all the difference for some students, who just want someone to talk to after a hard day at school.
"Most importantly, [the after-school program] is a place for students to connect to other students and tutors outside of their homes. It has been an amazing experience watching the students support each other and make friends even though we are not able to be together in the same room or building." explained Erin.
Virtual field trips keep kids wanting to attend after-school programs weekly
Once a favorite activity across Erin's after-school programs, educational field trips are currently at a standstill as the global pandemic continues to prevent in-person gatherings. But, she hasn't let current restrictions keep her students from exploring new places and enjoying events.
This school year, students in the after-school program have already virtually toured Monterey Bay Aquarium in California; traveled on screen with a 21st CCLC staff through a hike in the woods; and even went on a virtual kayaking adventure with a teacher.
As Allentown School District students continue virtual learning, Phillips is committed to creating virtual after-school programs that open doors for students to learn, create, share, and discover their potential inside - and especially now - outside of the classroom too.
* Our Allentown 21st CCLC after-school program Is virtual and accepting students right now! Open to all students 6th - 12th grades in Allentown School District boundaries.Program is Monday - Thursday from 3:30pm - 6:30pm daily.