Expanded Learning Programs are School Improvement Strategies

Afterschool, summer school and community school

11/20/2009  |  CATHERINE JORDAN
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What does afterschool mean to you? Is it fun and games, academic enrichment, basketball, remediation, or something else? Afterschool programs have existed in the United States for more than a century, and the concept has evolved and changed through the years.

In the 1990s, with the passage of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers legislation, afterschool programs embraced a range of academic, athletic, artistic, and youth development activities, and experienced significant growth nationwide.

Now, almost a decade later, after-school programs refer to all kinds of expanded learning opportunities outside the traditional K–12 school day. Program formats may vary and happen in different timeframes and places

— before and after school, Saturday school, summer learning, extended school years, and others.What they all have in common, however, is giving students opportunities to develop skills and knowledge that will enhance school success.

Over time the benefits of after-school programs have become increasingly clear.Adult supervision, risk prevention, and skill building have been coupled with an increased emphasis on addressing the problems of under-performing students and narrowing the learning gap.This has been especially true in the past five years as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The evidence from a number of recent research studies makes a strong case that after-school programs make a difference in student academic achievement. In a 2008 research study of 50 afterschool centers, researchers reported that randomly assigned students participating in the structured programs gained more ground on math tests than their counterparts in regular afterschool programs.The researchers are continuing to track students for another year to see if the gains increase.These results demonstrate the potential impact afterschool programs may have on student achievement.

A recent study by Durlak and Weissberg, concluded that afterschool programs can produce a variety of positive benefits for participating youth.This study suggests that it is the combination of both sequential and active processes and focused, explicit academic content that leads to positive results. For schools, these findings point toward the need for afterschool programs to strike a balance in the activities offered and for staff to be intentional about what they do to address academics.

SEDL and its partners in National Partnership for Quality Afterschool Learning, recently completed a five year study of promising academic practices in expanded learning programs.After reviewing data and making site visits to 53 programs in 33 states, SEDL identified a set of characteristics these high-quality programs share.The characteristics clustered in five areas:

  • Program organization
  • Instruction and curricular practices
  • Staff and student relationships
  • Parent and community engagement
  • Accountability

High-quality programs had strong collaborative leaders able to articulate the program’s vision, empower staff and motivate students. Instructional and curricular practices were standards-based, linked to the school day, and engaged students in active project-based learning. Staff interactions with students were very positive and based on high expectations for student success in school and life.Although many programs in the study reported limited numbers of parent volunteers, the parents expressed satisfaction with the programs. In all kinds of communities, programs benefited from partnerships with community organizations, and individuals, through a variety of project-based learning experiences, volunteer mentors and donated goods and services. All 53 programs reported conducting internal and external evaluations to continuously improve their programs and build a support base. SEDL plans to publish a detailed report on dozens of similar successful practices in the fall of 2009.

One result of SEDL’s study is a set of free online materials available on the afterschool Web site (www.sedl. org/afterschool) that highlight specific academic instructional practices these high-quality programs use in mathematics, literacy, science, arts, homework help and technology enrichment.The Web site also includes video examples of practices, sample lesson plans and activities, resource lists, and research information. Some of the instructional practices on the Web site include:

  • Finding math in everyday activities, from cooking to exercise, that let students enhance their math skills
  • Sponsoring family literacy events so that parents can participate in literacy activities with their child
  • Using inquiry to help students investigate, learn and understand science better
  • Integrating arts with other subjects to reinforce skills and content across curriculum using hands on activities
  • Using technology to learn in virtual spaces and enhance other curricula
  • Managing and organizing the homework environment to create a space for student success

Afterschool leaders interested in embedding academics into their programs through fun and engaging activities can explore these resources and decide which ones would benefit their programs the most.

The case that expanded learning programs can contribute positively to student achievement is strong and growing.There are many high-quality academic resources available to help districts and schools use expanded learning programs as intentional school improvement strategies.Yet, too often expanded learning programs are overlooked and underutilized in addressing adequate yearly progress as required by the by No Child Left Behind.The resources now pouring into districts and schools from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provide a unique opportunity for districts and schools to address improved academic achievement by taking full advantage of the often untapped and underutilized potential of expanded learning programs that can be intentionally and strategically aligned to increase student achievement.

Catherine Jordan is the program manager at SEDL. For more information visit www.sedl.org.
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