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Reading, writing and foosball: Janesville Boys & Girls Club upping its academic game


Don’t let the foosball table fool you: The Boys & Girls Clubs of America have always had a strong academic focus.

Club staff don’t use the term “academics,” of course, because it’s a horrible word that sounds too much like something kids would do in school. Instead they call them “activities” or “centers” or some other innocuous word designed to disguise learning.

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Starting this month, the Boys & Girls Club of Janesville is ramping up its focus on academics with a new literacy initiative and a program designed to improve graduation rates.

Both programs are being funded by a two-year, $221,750 grant from the United Way Blackhawk Region and are being run in partnership with the Janesville School District, according to a news release from the Boys & Girls Club of Janesville.

The literacy effort fits into the Janesville School District’s “Five Promises,” a set of goals addressing issues ranging from literacy to financial responsibility.

In particular, the district is working toward having 90 percent of third grade students reading at grade level by the end of the third grade year.

Boys & Girls Club executive director Sara Stinski said the literacy effort was an appropriate fit for her club.

“This is really a community problem,” Stinski said. “The schools are not going to solve it themselves.”

The school district is pleased to have the club on board.

“Having common goals with the Boys & Girls Club is really exciting for us,” said Alison DeGraaf, district director of learning and instruction. “We’re able to look at our promises and use some of our same core instructional practices that are really and truly going to help out students grow.”

The Boys & Girls Club of Janesville starts to come to life at about 3:30 p.m. when the first kids arrive. The majority of them are bused to the club straight from school, and they burst through the door with eager questions about using Wii, today’s snack and other random topics. For the first 20 to 30 minutes, they run around.

Anthony Wahl 

Boys & Girls Club of Janesville staff member Karlie Bird reads to a group of first and second grade students inside the club on Thursday, Oct. 31.

“They need to burn off some of their energy,” said Kathy Murray, club literacy instructor and former Janesville School District academic learning coach.

Then, it’s snack time, followed by independent reading and “Power Hour” where students do homework. After homework, students get to pick from one of three activities. All of the activities are part of a nationally-based, educationally-proven curriculum. Topics include healthy bodies and healthy minds; science, technology, engineering and math; and the arts. Everything is hands on, and most things are active.

With the grant, the club plans to tackle kids’ reading skills directly. After getting parents’ permission, Murray will be able to get reading test results from the schools. She’ll also be able to have conversations with teachers about what a specific child needs the most. Is a child able to read but unable to draw inferences or meanings from a text. Is it a problem with fluency or recognizing sounds?

When DeGraaf talks about “core instructional practices,” she’s talking about techniques that Murray understands because she used them as a teacher and coach.

Murray has trained the club’s staff members so they can teach those methods with students, and that’s already been a big help, Stinski said.

Anthony Wahl 

Boys & Girls Club of Janesville first and second grade members listen and watch inquisitively as staff member Karlie Bird reads a book inside the club on Thursday, Oct. 31.

Kids will be divided up into groups or work one-on-one with staff or volunteers. Staff will spend more time reading aloud to kids.

In addition, the club is looking for adult volunteers to serve as reading buddies one or more times a week from 4:15 to 4:45 p.m.

Finishing strong

The grant also allowed the Boys & Girls Club to hire a coach to institute the “Be Great Graduate” program at Franklin Middle School. Dropping out of school is “a process, not an event,” according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction website. Drop-out early warning signs show up as early as middle school, according to a variety of studies.

Educators look at student attendance, discipline, academics and the number of schools students have attended, said Charles Urness, principal of Franklin Middle School.

Megan Rebout, who previously worked with youth in Rock County’s 4-H program, is going to serve as a graduation coach, and her work will go far beyond tutoring.

She’ll start with sixth grade students and will follow them from year to year.

“There’s a lot of pieces to that coach role,” Urness said. “There’s the social-emotional piece. There’s the organizational piece—this sounds pretty simple, but it’s making sure the kid has the supplies needed, making sure they’ve got everything in their backpack to go home. Then there’s the communication piece.”

That might turn out to be the most important, Urness said.

Anthony Wahl 

Literacy Program Manager Kathy Murray reads a book to Boys & Girls Club of Janesville members while they have an afternoon snack upon arrival to the club on Thursday, Oct. 31.

Rebout will serve as a listening ear for students who are struggling. They won’t have to compete for her time with the hundreds of other kids at school.

The “Be Great Graduate” program has been used in Green Bay for more than a decade and has a 90-percent success rate.

For Janesville School District Superintendent Steve Pophal, the Boys & Girls Club’s new programs mean a stronger bound between the two institutions.

“They recognize, as too do we, that their kids are our kids,” Pophal said. “And disproportionately, the kids that are coming to the club need that extra help.”

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New York consultant backs idea of indoor sports complex


A New York-based consultant thinks an indoor sports complex could give the community more Janesville and less “Chainsville.”

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James Lima, president of James Lima Planning and Development in New York City, wrote in a memo to the city that an indoor sports complex at the Janesville Mall could provide the city an opportunity to turn Milton Avenue into a “far more pedestrian-friendly environment.”

The Janesville Foundation gave the city $10,000 to bring Lima to Janesville in October. He was tasked with providing the city with an opinion on how a sports complex could affect Janesville economically.

Lima spent two days in Janesville in early October and spent one day giving presentations to community groups about urban revitalization.

The Oct. 29 memo praises the idea of an indoor sports complex and provides examples about how similar development in other cities has increased property values and quality of life.

The indoor sports complex steering committee in September recommended the Janesville Mall as its preferred site because of the its proximity to other retail locations, restaurants and hotels and access to popular roads.

Lima in his study focused on the mall site and did not offer insight on other proposed locations, such as near the city’s Youth Sports Complex and a site downtown.

Mall officials at a city council special meeting Wednesday night said the former JCPenney site would provide the fewest obstacles for construction of the complex.

The JCPenney site is tucked on the opposite side of the mall from Milton Avenue.

Putting the complex in a “back of house” location is problematic and “lacks the dignity and civic presence of the best communal and civic places in Janesville,” Lima said in his memo.

Lima recommends building the sports complex along Milton Avenue between the street and the front of the mall with a courtyard connecting the sports complex and the mall.

Andy Weiner, president of RockStep Capital, which owns the mall, said building the complex in accordance with Lima’s plan would not be possible.

The mall has contracts with tenants in the front of the mall including Dick’s Sporting Goods, Ulta and Kohl’s. Building a structure that would block the view of those stores from Milton Avenue would result in a legal battle RockStep probably would lose, Weiner said.

Lima’s plan would put the complex in walking distance from Kiwanis Community Park, Ardon Park and Milton Lawns Memorial Park.

The complex could make Milton Avenue more pedestrian friendly, according to the memo.

Lima also offered thoughts about the current ice arena, which sits at the edge of Lions Pond beside the US Army National Guard Recruiting Center.

The National Guard center is out of place in the park setting, according to the memo.

The ice arena site and the National Guard site could be refigured to host cultural, recreational or parks-related uses, according to the memo.

“Few sites in Janesville offer as much potential to create a next generational investment in placemaking for the broader Janesville community’s enjoyment,” Lima wrote in the memo.

The city council at its Nov. 11 meeting will vote on whether to lock in the Janesville Mall as the site for the potential sports complex.

Council President Rich Gruber asked Wednesday whether the council will be voting on the mall at large or a specific site on the mall property.

City Manager Mark Freitag said the JCPenney site and the former Sears site could attract different donors for the project.

The Sears site is visible from Milton Avenue.

Weiner told the council he is willing to explore the viability of the Sears site, but it would be met with more hurdles.

Prospective lessees were looking at the Sears site as recently as last week, he said.

City staff will ask the council to approve the mall site in general, but the council could choose to be more specific.