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Building Relationships and Student Success

How summer and afterschool programming can boost student achievement and the teaching workforce
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Research suggests that low-cost or free public enrichment opportunities that are available to all students tend to be inconsistent in terms of quality, not providing the same boost toward school success as many of the programs in which families with greater resources can enroll their children. A recent white paper from the Education Redesign Lab, however, may offer insight to leaders who hope to strike a balance.

A partnership between Somerville (Massachusetts) Public Schools, the Education Redesign Lab’s By All Means Initiative, and a tuition-free, intensive afterschool and summer program from Breakthrough Greater Boston takes a two-pronged approach to fighting inequality and encouraging college success. Using a “near-peer” model of instruction (where middle school to high school students are taught by college students interested in education), the Breakthrough program not only bolsters student achievement but also works to develop diverse and highly skilled teachers.

The program has been incredibly successful so far. Most enrolled students have demonstrated substantial gains in reading comprehension, science, math and writing. Benefits extended not only to students but to staff — over 70% of the graduating college seniors who participated as classroom instructors ended up pursing a teaching career.

Leaders looking to implement summer programming should consider the benefits that Breakthrough’s near-peer model offers through the following program structures: 

  • Small advisory groups - Students are assigned to groups of two to four students and one teacher. This allows teachers to build personal connections and provide students with individualized attention over the course of the summer.
  • Role models - Reducing the age gap between students and the instructors (who are college-age) inspires students to see educational achievement attainably — especially as the instructors interact with students in extra curriculars, recess games, and other settings beyond the classroom. “If you’re a middle schooler and you’ve signed up for a program because you want to get to college and you’re very likely to be the first person in your family who will achieve that goal, having that real world role modeling every single day is very powerful,” says Elissa Spelman, executive director of Breakthrough Greater Boston.
  • Early intervention - For a college access and success program, Breakthrough targets students early on in their academic careers, starting in sixth grade. “You have a lot of time to make up academic ground, to re-orient yourself in terms of your identity as a learner, which is transformative,” says Spelman.
  • Cultivation of the next generation of educators - “We’re building teachers, not finding them,” says Spelman. Teachers have a chance to experiment with lessons, and since all are novice teachers, this kind of flexibility is important for them early in their careers. They have an opportunity to receive feedback and coaching from professional educators and learn from their mistakes.  
  • Attention to diversity in the teaching workforce - The program actively recruits teachers who are reflective of the ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds of the students to not only strengthen the bonds between students and teachers but to also strengthen the teaching workforce.

Other considerations

“When Paul Reville founded the Education Redesign Lab, it was based on the theory of action that schools alone are not a strong enough intervention to address the challenges of kids, particularly those living in poverty. It would take a much more comprehensive and coordinated approach that addresses all the additional supports and opportunities kids need,” says Lynne Sacks, research director at the Education Redesign Lab.

To ensure that programming supports student growth, think about:

  • Partnerships: Working with the Education Redesign Lab, Somerville created a Children’s Cabinet that relies on a cross-sector collaboration between community stakeholders and city officials to leverage resources. As part of that initiative, they have a dedicated cabinet position that focuses on providing high-quality out of school opportunities for kids.
  • Setting clear goals: While student success is the central mission of Breakthrough, they also balance that goal with developing new teachers. “Students can make significant academic gains but for us, love of learning and identification as a learner are equally as important if you want a student to stay on the path to college,” says Spelman.

Key Takeaways

  • Build strong relationships between students and program instructors. Make sure students find relatable role models — not only to boost academic success but for insight on the college process.
  • Out-of-school programming can help build a new and diverse group of teachers that will be better prepared and have experience when they enter the workforce.
  • Cross-sector collaboration is key. Whether through a formalized Children’s Cabinet or by ensuring teachers in schools and outside of school share information, collaboration gives students a support network at a time when they are shaping their identity as a learner.

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