When government officials, school districts, and community-based youth organizations work together to coordinate their efforts at helping young people learn in the out-of-school hours, great things can happen.
That's the encouraging lesson from an important new RAND Corporation study of a multi-year effort by The Wallace Foundation to support the building of systems for out-of-school time offerings for children in Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Providence, RI. That includes learning opportunities after school and during the summer, involving institutions such as parks and libraries as well as nonprofit organizations and schools.
The citywide systems, in which Wallace invested about $58 million overall, were built around regular collection of data on basics such as enrollment, attendance, and availability of programs, allowing communities to see where their needs for out-of-school time learning really were. Cities were then able to assess results, pinpoint funding priorities and communicate effectively with families to increase participation. The cities also applied uniform quality standards to all the out-of-school-time programs, providing staff training and incentives for program providers to meet attendance targets.
A century's worth of studies have documented the problem of summer learning loss, but the opportunity to solve that problem with comprehensive, engaging summer programming rich in academic content is only starting to be widely recognized. For too long, summer learning programs were fragmented, with access for low-income children varying widely from place to place. They often operated separately from each other and from the summer school sessions offered by school districts -- which were usually strictly remedial and limited in scope.
That's changing, and the RAND study, called "Hours of Opportunity," offers firm evidence from the Wallace initiative that we must involve every stakeholder in education -- from families to community leaders to camp counselors -- to seize the opportunity of summer and other out-of-school hours. The solution isn't simple enough to lie in just extending the school year or just creating more nonprofit programs without aligning their standards of quality. To be effective in this effort, it's critical to come together to offer an array of choices that give equal opportunities to all kinds of kids, and to create different kinds of learning environments that can really stimulate the brain.
With this type of systemic community buy-in, the study showed, participation in out-of-school time programs can increase dramatically. New York City almost doubled the number of students served (45,000 to 80,000), and Providence nearly tripled its number (500 to 1,700). Boston launched out-of-school-time programs in five schools serving almost 1,000 students, and Washington D.C., which began its effort in a handful of middle schools, has gone on to offer programs in every city public school.
But the study includes an important cautionary note: These systems are hard to build and, once created, they are fragile. If the funding isn't there -- along with the drive to keep systems going amid the changing priorities of urban leadership -- out-of-school time learning might again become fragmented and uneven in these communities. Overall quality would likely suffer if that happened, and many kids would be shut out of participating entirely, as they were before the promising efforts at coordination took place.
Let's take action and use this evidence to galvanize communities to harness all the learning resources available, and to muster the political will to unite public and private funding to make a real difference in the way our kids achieve.