By Cathy Tisdale, President and CEO of Camp Fire USA
“In our experience (and it would be echoed by other after school providers), children love the fact that their afterschool program is not school, is not graded and is a place where they don’t feel judged. Therefore, they actually come to love learning, trying new things and being with people totally unlike themselves. We don’t know if creating a mandatory program will engage more of these youth or discourage them even more.”
– Cathy Tisdale
Needless to say, I listened with great interest to the recent podcast interview Eric Gurna conducted with Jennifer Davis, Co-founder of The National Center for Time and Learning. How to maximize the value and impact of the current school day—much less a longer one—is complex. If the answer was easy or obvious, it likely wouldn’t be an issue at all.
So first, let me state categorically that the extended school day already exists, and has for years, in communities small and large across this country. It exists in every school, in all kinds of neighborhoods, where there is a strong partnership (and often contractual relationship) between the school and it’s after school partner— organizations like Camp Fire USA. For children and youth who participate three or more days a week in before and after school programs, their day is eight to nine hours long! What matters though is what happens in those programs and whether it measurably impacts the kids’ readiness and willingness to learn in the classroom; whether it measurably supports and engages their parents in the process and whether those kids most at risk for not staying in school begin to believe in and have real hope for a positive future for themselves.
Community partners, like Camp Fire, that provide quality before-school, afterschool and summer learning experiences are in constant communication with schools and teachers so they can enhance and supplement what is happening during the school day. Rather than being at odds with schools, the collaboration between school and community partners is often what yields the tremendous outcomes experienced by quality afterschool programs. In addition, the most effective community partners are equally adept at securing private and corporate program funding, United Way support and are active advocates for the cause we refer to as preparing youth for life now.
Research, observation and decades of experience tell us that there are at last three fundamental requirements for effective out of school programs. One, they are curriculum based, led by trained and caring adults, and include a focus on academic enrichment, tutoring and mentoring; two, they ensure “youth voice”, are highly experiential and are ideally conducted in small groups and three, they include active participation in the arts and physical activity—preferably out of doors. In fact, research indicates that youth should be exposed to the cultural arts no less than three hours a week and physical activity at least three days a week.
Therefore, I hope we’ll actually take this conversation “out of the classroom” on occasion. Further, I hope the day comes soon when it is accepted—and not just as a community by community “best practice”– that the accountability for preparing our young people for graduation and the right post secondary experience doesn’t rest solely with our education system. It should start with the degree to which young people show up every day ready and willing to learn and educators ready and willing to help them in that process. And that will only happen when parents and community partners, like Camp Fire and others, are at the table as part of the school year planning process, as Mr. Gurna and Ms. Davis discussed.
While I agree with Ms. Davis that accountability for what kids need to learn should be a mandate, Mr. Gurna raised an important point when he questioned whether there is too much emphasis on “high stakes testing”. We agree that is a real and current danger—though we understand what drives it. If classroom educators are evaluated on a very narrow set of metrics— often focused mainly on grade level reading and math—then they’ll adapt and simply “teach to the test”. And how’s that working for us so far?
Camp Fire, and others, has long integrated the developmental asset research led by the late Peter Benson of the Search Institute into its program model. His findings, and new research commissioned by the Thrive Foundation for Youth, led to the concept of “sparks”. Youth, as young as age 10, understand the concept and 100% of high school students, when asked, could name at least one of theirs! To reinforce one of the points Ms. Davis made during her interview, these findings make clear that every young person needs three Spark Champions: 1) family, 2) school and 3) community (faith institutions, youth organizations, etc.) Acting together, these champions must commit themselves to helping young people find their sparks through engaged learning, creating caring and supportive environments and fully engaging parents and families.
Additional resources are needed to continue to serve the hundreds of thousands of children already thriving in afterschool programs and to address the needs of 18 million children that would be if they were available. There is no substantive evidence that merely extending the school day will have the intended long term impact but there is ample evidence that strong out of school programs, often led by community partners, have a measurable impact across a young person’s development. Therefore, let’s not redirect current afterschool funding available through 21st Century grants to fund a longer school day as currently defined in Washington. Instead, let’s maintain those funds as is and supplement them with even more private and public support. Require parents and community partners, the experts in out of school time programs, and education systems, the experts in what kids need to learn, to create jointly the most favorable environment possible for young people.
Finally, Ms. Davis made an important observation that afterschool programs weren’t serving all the children in Boston that needed them. She is absolutely right– the question is what is preventing those children from being in the programs because those findings will be helpful to us all. In surveys of the afterschool field and parents, the largest barrier is cost and lack of transportation. In our experience (and it would be echoed by other after school providers), children love the fact that their afterschool program is not school, is not graded and is a place where they don’t feel judged. Therefore, they actually come to love learning, trying new things and being with people totally unlike themselves. We don’t know if creating a mandatory program will engage more of these youth or discourage them even more. What we do know is that programs like Camp Fire offer proven methods for engaging our young people and putting them on the path for success.
Jim Clifton summed it best in his recent book, The Coming Jobs War:
“Gallup has found that kids drop out of school when they lose hope to graduate. …and when they aren’t caught in time, they don’t just drop out of school, they drop out of life.
….hope predicts academic success and graduation better than grades or test scores…”