Camelot Education’s Excel Academy of South Shore’s After-School Programs Create Safe, Trusting Environment in Supportive Discussion Groups
In recent years, students of Excel Academy of South Shore in Chicago participated in a new after-school discussion series in which they can talk through any topic that comes to mind. The programs — “Girls to Women” for females and “You Got the Juice Now” for males— were launched by popular demand: first the girls’ program in 2018, and then the boys’ program in 2020.
The girls’ program was launched by faculty member Sandra Cribbs, who, coming from a mentoring background, saw that her students could benefit from a passionate and supportive role model.
“We saw very quickly the girls enjoyed being there,” Cribbs says. “The conversations were endless. The girls see the program as a safe haven and a sanctuary where we come together in a circle to discuss any topic that they choose.”
The program has grown in popularity during the pandemic. Students have come to treasure the twice-weekly program as an important part of their social lives.
But the subject matters make the virtual gathering more than a social experience. “The sessions allow students a judgment-free safe haven to get advice about anything they need,” says instructor Teandra Sweet, who joins Cribbs in leading the conversations.
“I enjoy the deep talks the most,” says 16-year-old student Nathalie Escorza. “The conversation is always open and there is no judgment. I’ve been able to learn how to take care of difficult situations much better through talking.”
The fact that the environment is so open helps students develop trust with the teachers, which helps support the school’s accelerated model for students that are 15 to 21 years old and are behind in their studies.
“They look at me as a big sister, even a mom figure,” Cribbs says. “They know they can talk about anything including relationships, politics, friendships — nothing is off-limits. They trust us because they know we will be honest with them, that we will share our stories truthfully.”
Seventeen-year-old student Ruby Delapaz appreciates being able to talk through things as women in a safe environment. “The conversations helped me learn about mental health and how important it is to let go of toxic relationships,” Delapaz says.
The program for boys came together over the past year after the girls’ program was so successful. “Just as the girls have benefited from Mrs. Cribbs’ and Mrs. Sweet’s mentorship, the boys feel they need a father figure as well,” says Calvin Lee, who leads the “You Got the Juice Now” discussions.
Nineteen-year-old 12th-grader Anthony Heberlain finds the positivity of the discussions to be empowering. He says the class has taught him to communicate more effectively what is on his mind. As a result, he believes he is better able to process information.
Classmate Kyjuan Washington also finds the class has helped him improve his communication skills. “After attending a few of the discussions, I was motivated to write so that I could have more to share at each session.” Washington appreciates getting life tips from familiar faces in the group.
Lee says that some of the young men contact him outside the sessions with things that are on their minds and topics they would like to discuss. Lee then incorporates those ideas into the group discussion when they get together.
Both programs have grown steadily. Each had three to five students regularly when the programs were launched. Now as many as 15 students show up every week. And more continue to sign up. (The school posted on Facebook to encourage new signups in December.)
“I came to understand the yearning they had to talk,” Lee adds. “It’s really a necessity.”
Excel Academy of South Shore’s accelerated school is part of Chicago Public Schools’ Options Schools network. It offers an extended day where students can earn up to five credits per semester and 10 credits per year. This allows students to graduate, earning their high school diplomas, in 2.5 years or less. Excel Academy is dedicated to creating a challenging, academically rigorous, and safe environment for all students.