Aprogram started 141 years ago as the Ohio Humane Society is helping poor inner city students today in four Cincinnati public schools advance academically, socially and emotionally through a variety of after-school programs.

Since its founding, the nonprofit FamiliesFORWARD, one of 12 charter agencies of the old Community Chest, the predecessor of today’s United Way of Greater Cincinnati, has evolved to meet the needs in the community. FamiliesFORWARD serves 2,700 students at three elementary schools—Hayes-Porter, Carson School and Bond Hill Elementary—and Withrow University High School.

Deborah Mariner Allsop, executive director since 2007, says FamiliesFORWARD is a well-kept secret that shouldn’t be.

What is the mission of FamiliesFORWARD?

It’s improving the lives of children. It’s helping them to stay in school, graduate from high school and be grade-level promoted every year on time, and help them look at post-secondary options once they finish high school. It’s working with the whole child and their families to reach their potential, academically, emotionally and socially. Grade-level promotions with the kids we work with on average are somewhere in the 85 to 90 percentile and Withrow’s graduation rate is 85 to 90 percent.

Talk about your after-school program.

Our after-school programs run two and a half to three hours. All our students have a homework help program for an hour. One thing different about FamiliesFORWARD is we hire people working in the schools during the day to work in our program. They work with students one-on-one to complete homework and turn it in. In most schools today homework is 50-60 percent of [their] grade.

What are some of the enrichment programs you provide students?

Our musical arts program touches the most kids. Most public schools don’t have a music program. We offer violin and ukulele and choir. We also have ballet, hip-hop, African dance, yoga, Zumba, as well as character-building exercises, peer mediation and stress relief.

Over the last four years we’ve developed a new partnership with the Cincinnati Nature Center. We take 90 students to the nature center every year in June for hiking and last year started exposing kids to one-week camp in July. We also have a strong partnership with the Cincinnati Arts Association for a spring concert for 150 students at the Jarson-Kaplin Theater at the Aronoff Center downtown. Another big part of the program is our Kids Café program in partnership with the Freestore Foodbank’s Cincinnati Cooks kitchen. We serve on average 40,000 to 50,000 meals across the four schools at the end of the after-school program over the course of the year. It helps kids who are undernourished or don’t have a dinner meal.

What’s the biggest challenge you face?

Many students come to school with their basic needs not being met. On average about 95 percent of our students in elementary grades are on the free lunch program. So that’s one of our biggest challenges—meeting their basic needs, helping students and their families work through some of those issues. Basic poverty is a barrier to them coming to school ready to learn.