Afterschool Program Success: What Happens When Beyond Schools Bells’ Teams Up with Five Communities to Create Initiatives from Scratch?

Afterschool Programs and Creativity: Solving New Problems with Design Thinking

Afterschool and summer programs are alive and well throughout Nebraska. From presenting at the GetConnected Conference to discussing the achievement gap to holding their annual conference, Beyond School Bells, Nebraska Children and Families Foundation’s middle childhood initiative, has been busy promoting and supporting quality afterschool programs.

Most recently Beyond School Bells’ (BSB’s) work has focused on Nebraska’s ELO Design Challenge, a Nebraska Department of Education funded initiative, to develop new afterschool programs in underserved rural communities. The Challenge included five communities and school districts considered “Afterschool Deserts” without any existing afterschool programs.

These schools included Auburn Public Schools, Beatrice Public Schools, Boone Central Public Schools, Centura Public Schools, and Grand Island Public Schools. The goal of this project was to create high-quality, locally sustainable ELO (Expanded Learning Opportunity) programs in each location.  

The five Design Challenge communities successfully created and implemented locally unique ELO programs based on local assets and partnerships.

Anna Wishart, Beyond School Bells’ Director of Partnerships, pointed out that each location was unique in terms of demographic.  

“We worked with them to be successful beyond lottery dollars through leveraging funds. Lottery money is for a startup, but Beyond School Bells’ coaching is about leveraging funds,” she said.   

Wishart said that she and Janny Crotty, Assistant Director of Advancement and Beyond School Bells’ Design Challenge partner at the Nebraska Community Foundation, worked hands-on with these five communities to create other ways to gather and maximize funding.

“There are creative ways to do this,” said Wishart. “Beatrice has used Think Make Create Labs to gain funding from banks by putting their logos on the side of the vehicle.”

For Auburn, early success begets future success. Building on their Design Challenge experience, the community competed to gain additional funding from Federal 21st Century CLC Programs. 

From hosting professional speakers to using a TMC Labs ® as a pop- up learning platform at different locations to going on a Mission to Mars, all of the communities’ noteworthy successes have been compiled into The MAP Academy’s final evaluation report for the ELO Design Challenge grant and executive summary. 

Thank you to Michelle Howell Smith at Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools for putting together the ELO Design Challenge Report and Summary. The full report is here.

These key findings will be combined with other insight and shared in an ELO Toolkit that BSB will launch in March.

Last fall, the locations’ community leaders met to share their successes and challenges as they began contemplating life after the Design Challenge. As the leads related their stories, Jeff and Anna helped them strategize for the following year. 

At the beginning of the meeting, Jeff said, “Afterschool programs suffer from terminal modesty. Advocates need to raise up local voices so people will know they exist and that they are major contributors to youth development in these communities.” 

In this spirit, program directors began to share, strategize, and troubleshoot their programmatic successes and challenges. While consistent themes emerged, it was also clear that each community tailored their offerings to meet their unique needs by developing and strengthening partnerships.

Jeff Cole, Network Lead and Anna Wishart, Director of Partnerships, helped the five communities strategize for the following year. 

Cardinal Kids Club

Boone Central’s Cardinal Kids Club (CKC) is an afterschool and summer expanded learning program created through a partnership between Boone Central Schools and the Boone County Foundation Fund.

CKC programming is designed to provide students with, as Project Director Mollie Morrow noted, “hands-on, engaging opportunities that enhance the school day, are driven by school-community partnerships, and encourage critical thinking and creative problem-solving in our children.”

Prior to the start of their ELO program, a needs-assessment survey was sent to the community; a steering committee was formed with local members to address results of the survey.

Cardinal Kids Club is an afterschool initiative that provides students the time to pursue, “hands-on, engaging opportunities…” 

38 students were registered in the program for the first two years. Then, the number rose to 47 for the 2019-2020 school year with a move to the Free Mason building located across the street from the elementary school. From 3:30-6:00 pm each day, students receive a snack, homework help, and a chance to engage in a variety of learning activities (e.g. physical activity, technology/ engineering, gardening, entrepreneurship, and creative arts).

Morrow said that the local Masons chapter gave CKC a building, which was among their major wins.

“This fall we also had an open house for donors,” she said. “We had activities like cardboard arcade games, ski-balls, and a balloon toss,” said Morrow.

“Our donors played the game and kids gave them tickets to turn in for a cookie. By having groups come in, kids amped up their game,” she said.  

CKC has been extremely successful in creating and sustaining community partnerships (e.g. Free Masons, Boone County Foundation Fund, the Good Samaritan Society, and a local philanthropic educational organization).

Morrow has developed materials that specifically outline tasks and expectations of staff including staff handbooks, evaluations, and job descriptions, which provide a strong foundation for developing a sustainable model for staffing.

More specifically, CKC has been successful beyond just the numbers. Thanks to their local Masons chapter, the program now has a building they can call home.

“They’ve been great partnerships,” said Morrow. 

Grand Island

Grand Island took an innovative approach to the ELO Design Challenge. In contrast to the other communities, Grand Island does not run a traditional afterschool or summer school program. 

Instead, Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Worthington developed a rotating program in which the Think Make Create Lab ® travels to each elementary school for two weeks at a time. When the lab visits a school, teachers use supplies to create dynamic, hands-on afterschool experiences. 

Additionally, pop-up events at locations like the State Fair provide opportunities for extended learning outside the typical school day. These events are free for all students who participate. The grant allowed the district to pay for a coordinator of the TMC lab®, who is responsible for scheduling visits, providing programming, managing the program-sharing site, and moving the TMC lab®  from one site to another.

Grand Island Public Schools took a unique approach with a rotating Think Make Create Lab® ! 

Grand Island’s unique approach can serve as a model for the broader Nebraska ELO community. Many communities lack the resources to develop an afterschool program, but a mobile TMC lab®  may be more feasible.

The approach developed in Grand Island demonstrates there are ways to streamline administrative components for different groups while still being cost-effective.

As Jeff pointed out, “Grand Island developed a pop-up model on a shoestring, which is the reality for many communities.” 

Grand Island’s TMC Labs’®  coordinator, elementary teacher Jason Weseman, developed a Google site, which helps facilitate administrative aspects of the TMC Labs® and program sharing. The site also serves as a repository for K-5 programming activities for use with the TMC Lab® as well as the classroom.

These programs’ can be credited not only to the ELO Design Challenge funding, but also the strategic partnerships and resources that provided support and guidance throughout the grant period.

Weseman said that Grand Island experienced a lot of engagement when they offered programs in the form of clubs, “We’ve done activities such as chess, crafts, Legos, and robotics, which was a big one. We’ve found that if kids can go home, then they’re interested, they’ll stay,” he said.

Another popular activity was Build Your Own Video Game, which according to Worthington, could very well be a club all its own. 


The Centura Expanded Learning Program is a K-6 program offered at Centura Elementary School, drawing students from surrounding communities: Boelus, Cairo, and Dannebrog.

On a typical day, the afterschool program serves approximately 20 students, and contains various week-long units of structured programming centered on a topic identified via a needs-assessment survey.

Some of the units included nutrition, baking, reduce/reuse/recycle, five senses, and healthy bodies. The program has also grown to include clubs based on specific activities. Examples include Lego Club, Sewing Club, Cooking Club, and Mancala Club. Program staff include paraprofessionals, parents, teachers, and several high school students.

Additionally, program director Rozlynn Dibbern helped create TMC®  /makerspace units and totes for teachers who want to use hands-on, makerspace activities within the classroom. This strategy led to increased interest in the afterschool program.

The Centura Expanded Learning Program discovered the importance of having a director with a background in education. Dibbern’s experience allowed the initiative to offer hands-on, engaging, thematic programming that could be tailored to a variety of ages.

The Centura Expanded Learning Program is for K-6 students at Centura Elementary School. Units include nutrition, baking, five senses, and more!

Examples of these efforts include Mission 2 Mars and So You Wanna Be A…, which were tailored to younger student learners.

Beyond School Bell’s Mission to Mars challenge was an especially engaging initiative for Centura youth. This project consists of students making their own physical space in Mars out of shoeboxes. 

“The students had to make sense and plan it out,” said Dibbern. “It was cool for them to do this – they loved it. They’ve continued to use the Mission to Mars framework – they love the hands-on, real-world aspect.”                             


Beatrice’s existing summer school program, Best Possible Summer, as well as an additional funding source, a federal 21st Century Community Learning Center (CCLC) grant from the Nebraska Department of Education, provided an excellent start for developing the afterschool program called Beatrice Learning Afterschool Time (BLAST). Attendance for BLAST has averaged 130 students at the three elementary schools in Beatrice, and an additional 330 for the summer program.

BLAST Program Director Doris Martin noted that their program focuses on a diverse set of activities and clubs with hands-on, application-based programming experiences rather than “sit and get.” The program is structured in units of various topics. Examples of units include space, weather, learning about my body, and agriculture.

Working Wednesdays was one particularly lively activity alongside their community partners such as the fire department, Beatrice Water System, and Roehr’s Machinery.

“The idea behind it is how things work,” Martin said. “The first year, we had a towing company come in and kids learned about pulleys and hydraulics. Then, the same guy brought a tow truck in. Kids will have heard these terms and seen them in action before middle school.”

BLAST-Beatrice Learning After School Time is an afterschool program that delivers hands-on activities and experiences! 

One of the goals of Working Wednesdays was to introduce kids to a broad range of professions. “They’ll also get introduced to careers; they’ll see teachers, dentists, and doctors, but they also need to see a wide range of experience,” Martin said. 

When asked how their program has been successful collaborating with members of the community, Martin replied, “just ask.” She believes once organizations get involved, they will be amazed at how much can be done by joining forces with local students.


Two years ago, Auburn’s afterschool program, DOGS Academy was just starting out with 34 students enrolled. Since then, Auburn’s total number of participants has increased to 75 students. Throughout the grant period, DOGS Academy has proven to be prolific: they have currently provided their program to 300 students.

Recently, Auburn made a successful shift from a more traditional afterschool schedule to a thematic club format. In partnership with Nebraska Extension, some of the past subjects have included art and music.

Program director Tyson Wessels said that their program makes the most of available space, both online and in-person.

“We function in one multi-purpose room,” he said. Thematic monthly activities have also been successful events for Auburn. Wessels said that during October, the students focused on the meaning of community by making fleece blankets, which they then gave to Project Harmony. In addition to making the connection between community, creativity, and giving, the students also made connections with local professionals. 

“A massage person and a beekeeper came in,” Wessels said, “Because they represent community markers. We have a high attendance – it’s in the 50s every day!”  

Auburn Public Schools’ DOGS Academy chose to focus on topic-based clubs like art and music! 

Among other successful collaborations include Auburn’s recent partnership with Peru State College, which has contributed to their quality faculty. Last fall, when Auburn’s softball team competed at a state-level tournament, school was officially not in session. For those two days, DOGS Academy was in full-swing, providing their educational resources for all students. This strong presence has continued to boost awareness and support of their initiative throughout the community. 

We are so proud of these communities and their partners, who have truly demonstrated what it means to take innovation into their own hands – and they have the data and stories to prove it. 

Selected results from the Evaluation Report Summary for Grand Island Public Schools: 

Access the full report summary

Learn more about Beyond School Bells 

Nebraska Children's mission is to maximize the potential of Nebraska’s children, youth, and families through collaboration and community-centered impact.

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Posted in Middle Childhood, News and Events, Teen/Early Adulthood

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