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The Power of Out-of-School Learning

Insight into the out-of-school learning sector and its unique impact on children's lives
Bianca Baldridge
Bianca Baldridge
Photo: Jill Anderson

The field of out-of-school learning time is vast — and supports 10 million children a year. Despite this, the programs are often viewed as glorified babysitting and tremendously undervalued. Associate Professor Bianca Baldridge began studying these programs many years ago, citing the impact they had on her own life and how little was known about them.

"I do think it is important for people to understand that as a society, we really depend on the sector in ways that we may not realize. ... Schools can't do everything. They never have. They never will," she says. "When parents are working, working late, young people have a place to go. That really supports the economy and thinking about parents having more time and space to work. And it provides young people with an opportunity to explore what they love, hone in on particular skills, engage with their peers, and also engage in relationships with youth work professionals."

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Baldridge shares insight into the out-of-school learning sector, its unique impact, the challenges it faces, and ways the sectors can work together to improve children's lives.


JILL ANDERSON: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. 

Bianca Baldridge knows firsthand the power out-of-school learning programs can have on kids. She attended a program growing up and then worked for one. Now she's a sociologist with an expertise in community-based education and critical youth work practice. 

Nearly 10 million children attend some type of afterschool learning program. Despite the huge numbers of participants, many of these programs are poorly understood, often seen as a place kids hang out and eat snacks. But the programs are wildly diverse, and many offer valued learning opportunities and impact on children's lives. I asked why so little is known about these programs and the ways children spend their time out of school. 

BIANCA BALDRIDGE: So I think there are a few reasons why people tend to focus more on school, and not outside of school. I think there's a way that we think about education and learning. It's become synonymous with school and with classroom teachers. And that makes sense in many ways, because you go to school to learn. [LAUGHS] But families are really important to young people's learning, as well as many of the different organizations and other areas and spaces where young people spend their time. 

And I also think that the sector, so the youth work or community-based youth education, community-based educational spaces, or the out-of-school time sector, there are lots of names for it, but people come into this profession in many different ways. So there are some community-based youth work professionals who might have a high school degree, who might have a college degree, who might have advanced degrees. But it's not necessarily a requirement, depending on the kind of organization you're working in and depending on the kind of organization or the context of where your program might be situated. 

And just to kind of back up a little bit to sort of talk about the landscape, because I think when we think about community-based youth organizations or educational spaces, we tend to think about what I would call national youth organizations. So the Boys & Girls Club, The Y, 4-H youth development, Big Brother Big Sisters, Camp Fire, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts. And so there are a wide range of chapters across states, regional differences, and things like that. But there's a national network. 

There are also grassroots community-based youth organizations that are independent, that are not attached to any kind of national network. Those are the organizations where I got my start in, neighborhood organizations, community centers. 

But then there's also faith-based organizations. A number of churches and mosques and temples have youth programming. We can look at cultural institutions like museums that tend to have an education department where they're doing community-based youth work with young people during after school, during the week, but then also summer programs as well. 

You have programming that takes place in libraries. You also have partnerships between universities and communities. And so programs like Upward Bound, those kinds of organizations where young people are brought to college campuses in the summer where they do academic prep as well as youth development-oriented kinds of things. 

And then you also have programs that are committed to providing basic needs for young people who may be unhoused or who might be experiencing trauma, where they might be canvassing neighborhoods and providing toiletries, food, temporary shelter for young people. So there are a lot of different kinds of organizations. You also have private enrichment programs where families who can afford it might be paying for extra academic supports or other kinds of developing skills and talents around music or sports or things like that. 

And then you also have capacity-building programs. And so in a number of cities throughout the country, you have out-of-school time networks. And sometimes there are partnerships between cities, school districts, and community-based organizations where a network might provide opportunities for organizations to receive professional learning opportunities and professional development opportunities. Maybe they're small grants

You have data sharing between school districts and the network so that cities can assess, well, who's being served? Who has opportunity and access to after-school programming, and who doesn't? Some networks might coordinate with the city and the school district to provide buses from schools to youth programs after school, especially if a city is not structured in a way where it's easy to get on public transportation. [LAUGHS] 

So there are a lot of different kinds of support that out-of-school time networks can provide. But so that is the vastness of the sector. And as you can imagine—

JILL ANDERSON: It's huge. 

BIANCA BALDRIDGE: It's huge. I actually didn't even talk about city. So thinking about our recreational leagues in parks, juvenile justice centers, youth detention centers. There are lots of different kinds of spaces. 

And so all that to say, depending on where you're situated and depending on the kind of organization or program or agency you might be working for, you might need an advanced degree, or you might not. So a lot of youth work professionals come into the profession through volunteer work, through part-time work, and then sort of stay in programs and then end up being full time. It really depends. 

So there's no uniform professionalization in the sector, which provides on one hand lots of flexibility. Some of the best youth work professionals that I've worked with in my career didn't have college degrees and had the most amazing connections with young people. [LAUGHS] So that provides an opportunity to get not only a racially, ethnically, socioeconomic diversity of staff, but it also sort of allows for sort of diversity and thinking in life experience of who can be in a young person's life and who can guide a young person through their various stages of development. 

And then on the other hand, the lack of professionalization makes it difficult to say, well, what exactly is it? [LAUGHS] What is it that people are doing? And this idea of youth development, being able to work with young people and support them through their academic, social, emotional, cultural, political development is important. And it's a skill. It's an approach to engaging young people and seeing them for who they are and allowing them to be themselves in these spaces. 

And so it's not an easy job. It's not anything that anyone can just do. But I recognize because the field is so diverse, training is different. [LAUGHS] Some of these work professionals don't have much training, and some have a lot. It really depends. 

But what I do think is important is for people to understand that as a society, we really depend on the sector in ways that we may not realize. So it's not only supporting the education system, the school system, because schools can't do everything. They never have. They never will. [LAUGHS]
And when parents are working, working late, young people have a place to go. That really supports the economy and thinking about parents having more time and space to work. And it provides young people with an opportunity to explore what they love, hone in on particular skills, engage with their peers, and also engage in relationships with youth work professionals. 

So adults who are not their parents, who are not family members, and who are not their teachers. And so much research has shown how important it is for young people to have various kinds of mentors or adult role models in their lives to see what is possible for their lives, and so that's really important. 

And I think the last thing I'll say too is this field has always been exemplary at not only the education part, but care. And when I think about COVID, we're all in crisis. Everyone's in crisis. Schools are scrambling to figure out what to do. 

Well, community-based youth workers and community-based youth organizations, we're also in crisis, but we're able to pivot in a way that not only supported young people academically, but also held space for them to process what they were experiencing and also seeing. Because we have to remember, when COVID hit, there was also all the uprisings because of the murders of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, George Floyd. And so youth workers and community-based organizations are really sort of positioned in this way to support young people in various domains in their lives and all that they're experiencing. Not just academic support, but the social emotional being and political identity development, all those things at the same time. 


BIANCA BALDRIDGE: And I think that's really important and a big difference between what classroom-based teachers can do sometimes. 

JILL ANDERSON: And I want to just really quickly get back to that lack of professionalization, because it sounds like that is almost a good thing in a lot of ways. But does that lead to lack of respect for some of these workers that it's volunteer? It's sometimes young people who are in these positions. 

BIANCA BALDRIDGE: I think there are a lot of different layers to this. I think there's a perception about what happens in these spaces. When we think about afterschool care, I think in the public imagination we think, oh, you're feeding them snacks and maybe you are playing board games and you're, quote, unquote, "babysitting." 


BIANCA BALDRIDGE: While there are programs and community centers that allow young people to just come and explore what they want to do, where, yes, there are snacks served and students can engage in sports and art and all those kinds of things where it's not necessarily fully structured, those programs are important and have a place. 

But again, the field is so vast, right? There are organizations that engage young people in social identity development, helping young people to understand who they are racially, ethnically, thinking about socioeconomic class, thinking about ability, thinking about gender and sexuality, helping them make sense of who they are, engaging them in youth leadership opportunities, organizing activism, writing, storytelling, art. Like, all kinds of things that is not just, here's a snack and wait till your parent comes and picks you up. There's a huge range. 

And so I think because of that, thinking about volunteers who come to programs, I think people don't understand that there's a skill involved in being able to connect with young people, being able to teach and guide young people. There are many organizations that have set curricula to guide young people through an understanding of the world they live in or a particular problem in their community or in broader society. 

There's just so much. It takes a lot of skill. And so I think sometimes what I would call, in some ways, the-- kind of want to say between disrespect and also a sort of neglect of who these professionals are, it has a lot to do with what we think happens in these spaces. 

JILL ANDERSON: So one of the things that I think your research looks at is that these programs haven't exactly been immune from some of the strains that have been happening in the larger picture of the education world. Can you talk a little bit about how these programs might be losing some of their autonomy within the big scope of education? 

BIANCA BALDRIDGE: In my first book, Reclaiming Community, I wanted to explore this issue exactly. So what were the trends in educational policy that were shaping what teachers were able to do in schools, what administrators were able to do in schools, and also the experiences of young people? 

So things like teaching to the test or privatization in education where teachers had these constraints on them because everything was about test scores or GPA-focused and not necessarily about critical thinking and all those kinds of things. Or even just school closures and the proliferation of charter management organizations that have a very specific way and distinct ways of working with particular Black and Latinx young people in cities. 

And so I wanted to explore, well, how do those trends in educational policies shape what's happening in the youth development space, in community-based youth organizations? And what I found is that community-based organizations are not immune from broader societal, social political forces. 
So thinking about what some of the trends were in privatization where there was this hyperfocus on test scores. Well, what I found in some organizations is that the foundation funding that many youth development organizations were applying for had language around, well, tell us how you're reducing the achievement gap. 

Tell us how as a result of your program students are doing better on these kinds of standardized exams, which, for organizations that were not solely committed to just academic development-- because there are lots of organizations that are about, hey. You were doing tutoring for academic support. We are getting you to college. Like, it's all academic-focused. 

What I found is that programs that had a more comprehensive approach to youth development where it might have been academic support as well as youth leadership development, social identity development, political awareness, social consciousness, those kinds of things, I found that there was a constraint because of the funding demands and this pressure to make the after-school space feel more like school and function more like school tied to grades and testing and things like that. 

I talk about this in my book. I have a chapter on the corporatization of after-school where there are some programs that, much like what's happening in education where I describe market-based reforms and where schools are-- many are sort of functioning like business enterprises. And that language of business, that language of the markets, that language of thinking about young people as commodities and not humans would trickle down or trickle into community-based youth organizations as well where you would see for the organization I studied their language shifting to say things like, well, how do we expand our footprint in this neighborhood? 

How do we serve more, right? Where quality is now synonymous with quantity. And so how many young people are being served as a measure of success? And not about how young people's lives are shaped and the ways that they're feeling and how they sort of understand themselves. 

It's more about, well, we serve 5,000 students instead of-- instead of 200, you know? And so again, sort of focusing on these very narrow measures of success, which I found to be really impactful in not so good ways for the organization that I studied. 

The other thing that's important is as a sociologist of education, examining the social context of schooling is a big part of my training, right? So how do we understand how social forces like racism or capitalism or patriarchy, how those things shape how schools are structured, how neighborhoods are structured, and therefore, how schools might be situated? As well as the experiences of teachers and administrators and students and families. 

One of the reasons why I'm so passionate about community-based education is I wholeheartedly believe in the power of these spaces, but they are not immune at all from all those social forces that I just named. So how we think about race and racism and capitalism and patriarchy, all those things also help organize how these organizations are structured and the experiences of program leaders and youth work professionals. They shape the lives of young people and families who come to receive programming. 

So even though in the literature I talk about this and other scholars have talked about how these spaces can be a place of reprieve, of joy, all those things are wonderful, but they can also be harmful. And so I think that's also important for folks to recognize is that when we think about community-based youth organizations and youth development spaces, we have to really commit ourselves to not reproducing oppressive youth work. 

And if I can take a step back to explain how and why race and capitalism and issues of paternalism really function in these spaces in really problematic ways that I am committed to making people aware of and sort of pushing out and disrupting is because when we think about even the early after-school education in settlement housings and the East Coast and where European immigrants were receiving programming, and for the Great Migration when Black folks were moving from the South to the North, when they found themselves in close proximity to European immigrants, there was a separation there, that they weren't allowed to participate in those early settlement housing after-school programming where there was a whole lot of-- whether it was language development, citizenship, education, a lot of gender-based programming. You know, the girls do this and the boys do that. 

But for Black young people, they were segregated and weren't allowed to be allowed with those young people. And so their programming took place in churches and in their own neighborhoods. And so that's one part. 

The other part that I think is really important is thinking about the ways that social policy and other kinds of political moments in our history have shaped how we think about these spaces, and in particular, young people of color. So when we think about the war on drugs, for example, during that time, thinking about the late '70s and the early '80s, there was this hyperfocus and attention on creating these kinds of organizations to, quote, unquote, "keep" certain kids off the street. 

I don't know if you're familiar with this, but I remember there being these sayings like, the most dangerous time for a young person is between 3:00 and 6:00, right? It's not necessarily framed as, well, yeah, we want young people to be able to explore things and to experience joy and connection and develop talents and skills. It wasn't like that for everyone. It was more about, well, let's keep Black and Brown and poor kids off the streets so that they don't go and harm other people. 

And also during that time, there are, I think, three particular framings of young people of color in particular during this time. One is, well, these programs are important to prevent them from becoming problems, to control gang activity, and to prevent teenage pregnancy. And so those themes, it's like a lot of these organizations during this time that sort of popped up in a lot of urban centers were created to do those things. 

And part of the problem that I have with that is young people in those spaces are then framed as at-risk or being broken, or that there's something inherently wrong with them, and that's the reason why they need this programming. Even as a young person, as a youth work professional-- and I worked in Los Angeles, in the Bay Area, DC, New York. There's always these moments when I talk about the work that I do in working with young people and community organizations. It's always like, a head to the side and people being like, oh, that's so good for them. 

That's so good for them. And it's like, hmm. What exactly do you mean by that? So there's this layer of what I call racialized paternalism where young people of color, young people who are experiencing poverty, where these programs are propped up as sort of saving institutions. So they become not just a space where young people can go to develop and experience joy and nurture talents and all those kinds of things and connect with other young people, because that's good, healthy development for all young people. 

It's more of, well, they need this because something is inherently wrong with them. They're broken. They need to be fixed. And these spaces then are positioned as containment spaces to control their behaviors and/or against spaces that save them from themselves and from their communities, which really sort of gets on my nerves, because then it sort of assumes that young people, and particularly young people of color, don't come from families and communities that love them and that nurture them and that want the best for them, right? It assumes that this organization or these organizations are saving them. 

JILL ANDERSON: I mean, you mentioned the '70s and the '80s. And of course, I do have some fuzzy memories of these types of things, even though [LAUGHS] that's dating me tremendously. But do you see a lot of these programs still exist? I'm guessing they do. 

BIANCA BALDRIDGE: Oh, for sure. 

JILL ANDERSON: Just as you said, all kids need support and need love and need joy, and benefit from learning about all these different things. 

BIANCA BALDRIDGE: How do we move away from it? There are a lot of things. I think I'll focus on two. The first, which sometimes I feel like is a losing battle, is really sort of shifting people's thinking and framing of what these spaces are for, but then also that means there has to be a dislodging of how people think about these spaces connected to race and class. 


BIANCA BALDRIDGE: Really people's perceptions and understanding of race, of racialized communities is important to understand. Sometimes I don't have a lot of faith that people will understand, right? Or sort of disconnect like, oh, yeah, you need this program because something is inherently wrong with you versus, hey, let's look at the structural violence that exists in our world. Let's look at the systems of oppression that shape how you're able to move in the world and your family's able to move in the world. Let's focus on dismantling those systems versus this desire to sort of fix people. 


BIANCA BALDRIDGE: There's that. And I'm grateful that I have a community of scholars and colleagues and people who are producing research and work with young people who encourage that. 

I do think the other part of it is making room for youth work that is not oppressive or that don't have these pathological and sort of pejorative narratives about the young people who come to those spaces. There is incredible work happening around the country where community-based youth leaders, young people, youth work professionals understand the system in which they're working in, where they understand, hey, in the summer of 2020, we just witnessed Black death over and over and over again repeatedly on the news cycles, those images. 

How do we understand those issues, those social and political problems, anti-Blackness, how do we understand that? Or sort of making young people aware that those social and political problems are indeed social and political problems and not a fault of their own. 

So there's incredible work where youth workers are doing this kind of work in a lot of different organizations. And I think part of the way that we sort of switch this narrative is promote and prop up those organizations that understand young people, particularly young people who are marginalized by race and class and gender and all those kinds of things, that see them as whole, that are creating programming, that are humanizing, that's dignifying, where young people can just be themselves. And so I think promoting and propping up that work is really important. 

JILL ANDERSON: 2.4 million Black youth participate in afterschool programs, and you don't hear a lot of that story being told that these are tremendous programs for a lot of these kids. 

BIANCA BALDRIDGE: Yeah. And I struggle with that as well. And every now and then I'll see a little spotlight on the news about a program that's doing incredible things or creative things with young people, and that's always great. It's always one of those heartwarming segments of the news. But again, we still sort of focus on schools as the places of learning youth development, and I just want people to understand that that has never been true. It's never been solely true. It's never been the sole site of learning and development. 

And then also too, something that I think is important to recognize is that not only are these organizations and the people who work in these organizations integral to the education system, the employment systems. They also are connected to and really, really vital for teacher education in ways that we don't recognize. 

So there are a number of schools of education in the country with pre-service teaching programs where, when you're placed in schools for your teaching service to sort of train to become a teacher, there are programs that will send pre-service teachers to community-based youth organizations to be in dialogue with and/or watch and learn from youth work professionals in community organizations before they're placed in schools. 

And for the programs that do this, when I was previously on faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and had a colleague who did this every year, before they stepped into schools they hung out with the youth work professional in a community organization. And that was because my colleague felt that youth work professionals had an approach that was centered not only on wanting to provide the best learning opportunities for young people, but that was actually centered on the whole child where, I not only care about your academic success, but I care about who you are as a person. Understanding what your emotional needs, what your basic needs are at the moment, what's happening in your home life and how that might be affecting how you show up in my classroom. 

And then also sort of recognizing that there's this youth-centered-- this kind of engagement where a lot of our professionals are trained to think about young people as-- we don't say equals, but where there's a shared power where they might be positioned at one point as the teacher, as the knowledge bearer, but also recognizing that at various points, young people are also the teachers and the knowledge bearers. 

So those were some of the reasons why this colleague actually sent pre-service teachers into youth programs. It's because there's so much experience there with learning, youth development teaching, but also caring for young people. 

And this is not a slight to teachers. Teachers are amazing and incredible. Like, I pretty much remember all my teachers' names that I had throughout my formative years of schooling. But I think it's really being aware that young people have many teachers, have many educators, and that they are in different contexts. 

And I think if we understand that community organizations in schools, families, we share young people. Like, how beautiful would it be if there are situations where schools, community-based youth organizations, and families are all in conversation about the well-being of a child? 

In my book Reclaiming Community, I talk about this organization that actually had relationships with the schools-- some of the schools that their young people went to. So when a young person lost a parent or experienced some sort of trauma, a youth work professional could pick up the phone, call the school principal, call an athletic coach, and say, hey, this is what's happening, and vice versa. 

How powerful would that be to just acknowledge that where young people are situated in the various spaces that they occupy in school and out of school, that there are adults who love and care for them? And how can we work together to ensure that young people are provided with the range of support that they need? And recognizing that the school can't do it all, [LAUGHS] and that there are things that community organizations can't do that schools can do. But how do we work together in the best interest of a young person? 

JILL ANDERSON: Bianca Baldridge is an Associate Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is the author of Reclaiming Community: Race and the Uncertain Future of Youth Work. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening. 


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