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A Citywide Focus on Out-of-School Learning

What does it take to create quality afterschool and summer experiences — for all children?
Graphic of kids in silhouette playing on a playground

The connection is clear: Closing persistent achievement gaps between advantaged and less-advantaged students will require paying much more attention to what happens in the hours after school and over the summer. Those are the moments when higher-income children are more likely to gain enrichment — and expand their learning — through activities like music lessons, sleep-away camps, coding clubs, or leadership workshops.

That kind of expansive out-of-school learning should be an entitlement for all young people, says former Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville. But school districts, already overstretched, can’t provide those opportunities on their own.

For the past decade, Providence, Rhode Island, has been spearheading an innovative approach: Making afterschool and summer learning a citywide priority, with cross-sector investment and commitment from the mayor’s office, local nonprofits, and the school district. And the efforts are working. The city has developed extensive afterschool programming for middle school students and begun to create pathways from those programs to high school coursework to summer employment. In the past two years, Providence has also expanded its summer learning program from four weeks to five and increased the number of slots from 500 to 850, with a goal of doubling that number to 1700 in the next four years.

Teachers know which kids need extracurricular opportunities. The mayor’s office knows where to find the resources. It takes a citywide commitment to bring the two strands together.

Providence is one of six cities participating in a collaborative project called By All Means, run by the Education Redesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The project seeks to create citywide systems that support schools — and go beyond schools — to close the achievement gap. Here, we explore how the work in Providence can offer a roadmap for other cities looking to revamp their out-of-school learning networks.

Laying the Foundation for an Effective System: Three Necessities

Reville, who directs the Education Redesign Lab, points to several key ingredients for expanding and strengthening afterschool programming — moves echoed by Hillary Salmons, the executive director of the Providence After School Alliance, and Heather Tow-Yick, Providence Public School’s Chief Transformation Officer. “Our theory of change,” Salmons says, “is that you need collective leadership, you need to streamline the resources you already have, and you need to bring in new resources as well.”

  1. Create cross-sector leadership. In Providence, leaders from the school district and local nonprofits have worked alongside Mayor Jorge Elorza. Collaborations such as these can make it more likely that each of these sectors will procure resources, information, and support. For example, while teachers are often the most aware of which kids need additional extracurricular opportunities, the mayor’s office is often in the best position to identify existing resources that can support these programs, says Reville.
  2. Take advantage of current assets. Having a strong understanding of your community’s current landscape and building off those strengths is key, says Tow-Yick. City leaders can map out which community organizations and nonprofits are already providing summer and afterschool programming, and then help expand those programs. Leaders can also learn from these program directors about what types of curricula and structures work best, and then try to replicate those experiences for more young people.
  3. Seek out additional funding. This is often the most difficult step — but absolutely crucial. If you don’t bring new money to the table, says Salmons, it’s going to be difficult to convince the community that this initiative will be effective. Philanthropy can play a huge role here, as it did for Providence (the Wallace Foundation invested $7.5 million in afterschool programs for the city). It’s also important to make the value proposition to your community that these initiatives are necessary and will be beneficial to all, so that taxpayers are supportive. 

“Our theory of change is that you need collective leadership, you need to streamline the resources you already have, and you need to bring in new resources as well.”

More Strategies for Success

Once community leaders have laid this systemic foundation, they can focus on maintaining rigorous, useful out-of-school learning programs. Reville, Salmons, and TowYick provide this additional advice:

  • Make it a needs-based program. All young people deserve quality enrichment after school and over the summer, but some will receive these opportunities automatically through their families. With city programs, reserve spots and funding specifically for the children who need it the most. This targeting can also help reduce costs.
  • Maintain high-quality instruction. Good teaching is significant because it will help young people learn — and because older students won’t attend a program if they don’t think it’s worth their time. Leaders can partner with public school teachers to learn what curricula and teaching practices will be most effective. They should hold afterschool and summer educators to the same high expectations teachers are held to during the school day.
  • Go beyond academic content. After a long school day (or a long school year), the afternoon and summer are a time for children to flex their bodies and spirits. Out-of-school learning doesn't need to be academic; it can be a time for music and art, engineering and civics projects, or team-building and leadership activities. These non-academic skills can make children more prepared for and interested in regular schoolwork, and they are highly valued in today’s labor market.
  • Connect to college/career. Many children and teens are unaware of the diversity of jobs that will one day be available to them. Educators can explain to students how summer and afterschool projects — building, coding, writing, or leading — are useful in careers and can help older students build their resumes. City leaders can also create pathways for teens from afterschool experiences to summer employment opportunities. For example, classes in child development or swimming could lead to summer jobs as a camp counselor or lifeguard.
  • Use data to manage and refine. While it’s important to track data on student learning, data on the program itself — participation rates, supplies used, meals and transportation needed — can help leaders as well. Resources should be going where they’re most needed. Children will respond to a program that’s well-run, and it will be easier for them to learn within a well-structured environment.

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