Strive For Success Academic and Enrichment Youth Center was established in March of 2012 by founder and Executive Director Caleb Thomas, M.A. This program was established to meet the needs of the at-risk youth of Johnson County and to help decrease high school drop-out rates, teen-age pregnancy, juvenile incarceration rates, and drug and alcohol use. Due to the lack of academic and enrichment activities for youth to attend after school, Strive For Success was created to provide accessible and quality after school programming.

1ST Annual 9 Hole Golf Tournament & Fundraiser 9/27/15

To Support Our: “Got Education?” Initiative
Sponsored By: A.J. Perez & DEERY Brothers of Iowa City, IA
September 27th, 2015 

Helping Struggling Students Strive for Success

by College of Education | Jun 08, 2014

Caleb Thomas (BA ‘01/MA ‘03) sits beside second grader Haley and listens intently as she reads to him from a picture book. Across the room, a volunteer asks sixth grader Denaro to take another look at a worksheet.

“Try again, take your time,” says volunteer Frank Slatnik, a retired professor from the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine.

Thomas works with a group of kids he calls the “Serious Seven.” They’re seven Iowa City elementary students enrolled in Strive for Success, an after-school program Thomas founded two years ago to help children achieve reading and math proficiency.

The program relies primarily on community and University of Iowa student volunteers to provide tutoring and mentorship. Funded through grants and donations, the program recently hired its first licensed teacher.

As a school counselor at Iowa City’s Grant Wood Elementary for seven years, Thomas was disheartened to see students falling behind in their academics at an early age.

“There’s only so much the schools can do,” he says. “There’s only so much time in the school day.”

While he was formulating a plan to intervene, Thomas tracked elementary students who needed help to see what would happen as they reached their teen and young adult years.

“I noticed the older they got, the harder it was for them,” he says. “Many were latchkey kids with nothing positive to do after school. There was a huge correlation with the same students not graduating, teenage pregnancy, lack of motivation, low self-esteem, gang affiliation, and juvenile incarceration.”

Thomas believed this could have been prevented by some extra academic support and motivating enrichment activities during their elementary years. His theory is that if students get behind and disheartened, they lose interest in school.

“If they don’t care about school, they don’t care about much else,” he says.

Strive for Success was born in 2012. It’s a free, afterschool program where students get help with homework and participate in enrichment activities, such as a music program with College of Education master’s student Abby Haywood or a LEGO League project with University of Iowa engineering students.

Haley, who loves to read, says Strive for Success helps her. She gets her homework done and she likes being around Thomas. “He makes us try our best,” she says.

Denaro, who hopes to go to business school and become an entrepreneur, says Thomas is a generous person.“He puts a lot of effort into the program,” he says. “He tries to make all the things we ask for happen.”

Thomas relates to his “Serious Seven” because he struggled to connect in school as well. He grew up with a single mother who didn’t have a college degree and couldn’t help him with his school work. Encouragement from one junior high teacher was his turning point.

“I realized if I put forth some effort, teachers were willing to help me,” Thomas says. “I hope they can see beyond their present situation and imagine something better. They can be that doctor, scientist, whatever they want to be. These are our future leaders. I want to prepare them to be exceptional in all aspects of life.”


New program investing in youth

Dec. 27, 2012 9:34 PM

Strive for Success works with kids who are behind in reading, math
Iowa City Police officer Michael Smithey talks to a group of children before their ride around town in a police car Dec. 19. / David Scrivner / Iowa City Press-Citizen

Written by
Josh O’Leary
Iowa City Press-Citizen

 Strive For Success
What: A new after-school program currently based in the Iowa City Police Department substation at Pepperwood Plaza dedicated to helping at-risk grade-school students succeed in school, life and society.
More information: Contact executive director Caleb Thomas at 321-0381 or success



Officer Mike Smithey was chatting with the kids in an after-school program at the Iowa City Police Department’s southeast-side substation earlier this year when he cut them a deal.

“There was a comment thrown out about riding in a squad car,” said Smithey, who patrols the area and is an alumnus of nearby Grant Wood Elementary School. “Many of them know my mother, who works at Grant Wood, so I told them, ‘Tell you what, you get a letter from your teacher or mentor saying you’ve done your work and done a great job, I’ll take you on a little ride-along.’”

Smithey made good on his promise last week, picking the grade-school students up in his police cruiser — a reward for the academic strides they’ve made as members of the new Strive for Success program.

“If we were good, we all would get to ride,” said 11-year-old Denaro Smith, a Grant Wood student who was among the Strive for Success members excited to take a trip around the block with Smithey.

Caleb Thomas worked for eight years as a guidance councilor at Grant Wood before founding Strive for Success in October. Since then, he has been leading daily after-school sessions with nine third- through sixth-graders in the police substation’s community space.

The nonprofit program is geared toward at-risk children who are behind one to two grade levels in reading and math, with the goal of helping them achieve academic, personal and social success, as well as strengthen their family units, Thomas said.

“Over the last eight years I saw so many students who weren’t reading on grade level, and as they got older, they continued to get in trouble,” Thomas said. “Some ended up in juvenile detention centers, and the older they got, some ended up dropping out of school or could barely graduate. From the elementary school level, seeing that kid with great dreams and big ambitions, to see that die down, was heartbreaking.”

The program’s first hour each afternoon is devoted to school work, and the second half is set aside for enrichment activities. Students have been hard at work on a series of Lego robotics projects, which are spread out on an activity table inside the substation, and twice a week, volunteers from an outreach group called the Iowa Youth Writing Project visit to work with the children.

Denaro said one of his favorite activities this school year was creating a superhero with Iowa Youth Writing Project volunteers. And the name of Denaro’s superhero?

“Volcano-man,” he said. “He’s a man in a volcano.”

Thomas is working to secure more funding and donations for the program to accommodate more kids, eventually moving to a larger facility and purchasing a vehicle for field trips and community service outings.

“We’re continuing to strive to help these youth to reach their dreams and goals, but we need people to invest, because when they invest in this program, they’re investing in these youth,” said Thomas, summing up his fundraising pitch.

Jorey Bailey, who works out of the southeast-side substation as ICPD’s crime prevention officer, said allowing Strive for Success to use the facility’s community space was a no-brainer because the Police Department and youth program have similar goals.

“The kids are working hard toward their goals to be better members of the community, and especially when they’re grown up to be good members of the community,” Bailey said. “That’s what we want, and that’s what Strive for Success is shooting for.”

For Officer Smithey, the ride-alongs provided a rare opportunity to get to know kids in a positive setting.

“We don’t get a lot of opportunities to have a really positive interaction with a lot of people in our community,” Smithey told the kids. “We get called because something has happened — you may be a victim, but something bad has happened. ... I’m just thrilled to death I get to take you on a ride-along like this.”