SAVING OUR SONS

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After-school program keeps kids off the streets


      At the West Side’s Grover Cleveland School, a bell rings shrilly in the distance and the hallway is suddenly filled with children. They chat excitedly in English and Spanish, running to greet their friends and also to find older siblings. Some parents are mixed into the chaos and call out for their children, then wrap them up before stepping through the tall wooden doors into the cold. Seventh and eighth graders fill the stairway, turning on their phones as they wait for the bus.The hallway empties as quickly as it was filled, but that doesn’t mean the school day is over. Now the afterschool program begins.
     At Grover it’s known as After School All Stars, a national afterschool program that is a part of thousands of schools in 13 major U.S. cities. Like Cleveland, more than 240 Chicago Schools participate in ASAS, which includes activities like theater, computer, and art. The programs vary depending on the school, but the mission is the same:“To provide comprehensive out-of-school time programs that keep children safe and help them to succeed in school and in life.”
That program is one of the ways Cleveland aims to help its students and their neighborhoods too often filled with crime and with the kinds of street perils like gangs, drugs and violence. CHOCO (Cleveland Helps Our Community Out), is a program exclusive to Cleveland School, located at 3121 West Byron St. Robert Staszczak, the assistant principal, said that CHOCO does everything from feeding the hungry to beautifying the neighborhood.
“A lot of it is more student generated. The couple of ladies that run it, obviously they’ve got a passion for things, but it’s the kids coming up with the ideas of what we can do,” Staszczak said.
After School All Stars often encourages its students to give back to the community. 
“We’re getting ready for Chicago Youth Service Day, which is a city-wide event,” said Christine Koh, a spokeswoman for ASAS. “It’s a combination of [the] CPS Service Learning Department, the mayor’s office, [and] the park district, and that’s on April 30, a Saturday.”
CHOCO’s participants’ latest assignment was to find a way to raise money for earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan. The students decided to make bracelets to sell during lunchtime.
 As the program convened one recent afternoon, students dropped their book bags and coats into a corner as they made their way into the classroom, sitting at tables or on pillows on the floor.
“Okay, this is what they were working on last week,” Meredith Piec, the teacher, explains to the class. She motions to one of the girls at a nearby table, who goes on to explain the bracelet idea.
“To raise money for Japan!” a girl, of about 10, exclaimed. “We want to be…beneficiaries.” She has some trouble sounding out the word, but Piec praises her for using it, and using it correctly.
“We try to have kind of a reflective time,” Piec said. The students participate in RAK, or Random Acts of Kindness, during the week.
“They write down the good things they did and drop them in a box. It’s totally anonymous, and then we share on Thursday,” Piec explained.
Not all of the programs are your everyday extracurricular activities. Cleveland School students can participate in board games with faculty and friends. Staszczak said many of the teachers maintain a presence outside of the school and become like family to the students.
“In walking around the neighborhood or shopping in the neighborhood, obviously we see kids,” Staszczak said. “It allows whatever that relationship [is] to develop or at least [helps the kids] buy into ‘wait, Mr. Staszczak’s just a regular guy.’”
“There’s actually one kid who thinks I live by him, so he tells all his friends “Mr. Staszcazk lives by me!” and I’m like, “No, I’m just walking past your house to get to the El!”
A small boy no older than five walks somberly into Staszcazk’s office. When the principal looks up and asks why he looks upset, the boy only sighs and says, “I don’t want to my grandma’s house, I want to go to my papi’s house.”
Staszcazk pats him on the shoulder, says a few comforting words, and follows the boy out of the office as his grandmother comes to pick him up.
The students at Cleveland seem to enjoy the time they spend at ASAS. As they eat lunch in the cafeteria between their programs, their smiles fill every corner of the room. A little boy wearing an apron is responsible for helping the older boys clean up the tables. He smiles proudly as he hands them empty plates and cups in an assembly line.
By Caress Thirus

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