Stronger Together: Expanded LearningPart of Stronger Together: A Guidebook for the Safe Reopening of California's Public Schools. Created through the Reopening Schools Task Force that fostered a collaborative process for educators and stakeholders to lend their important voices.
As school districts consider their options for reopening and redesigning the school day, they should be reaching out proactively to their expanded learning partners. Publicly funded after-school and summer programs operate at more than 4,500 school sites around the state, serving over 860,000 students—more than 80 percent of whom are socioeconomically disadvantaged (California Department of Education 2018). 2 Expanded learning partners have a unique set of assets and expertise that are particularly important in the COVID-19 era. In particular, after-school and summer programs have an explicit commitment (defined in Quality Standards for Expanded Learning in California: Creating and Implementing a Shared Vision of Quality (PDF)) to build the positive relationships, safe and supportive environments, and engaging activities that students most need in this time of uncertainty and stress. 3
Why: The Science Grounding
Stress has a major impact on the developing brain. The Science of Learning and Development Alliance is a great resource for teachers, administrators, and LEAs to understand how stress affects students (see its research at https://www.soldalliance.org/resources). In the pandemic, students may have experienced high levels of stress from the disruption of their daily lives, worries about their own and family members’ health, and possibly financial strains in the household and community. For children living in unstable or unsafe conditions, the stress and trauma— resulting in ongoing, unbuffered cortisol—threaten to have long-term negative impacts on their bodies and brains. These students will likely return to school needing additional supports to rebalance their limbic systems and refocus on the task of learning and being productive in a school community.
This is where expanded learning can play a key role. Oxytocin—released through the experience of trusting relationships and safe, calm, predictable environments—acts as a buffer to cortisol, allowing children to access the higher order thinking, planning, remembering, and regulating functions of their limbic system. 4 Expanded learning programs are an untapped resource that not only complement academic skill-building, but more importantly, specialize in building positive relationships with young people and their families.
Staff in these programs often have had similar experiences of the student population and can quickly form authentic relationships with students. And, because family members sign their children out with staff at the end of the after-school program, expanded learning staff are more likely to have relationships with families, often acting as a bridge to school-day teachers through the ongoing communication that naturally takes place. In fact, during distance learning, some districts have relied on their expanded learning partners to find and re-engage families that they could not reach remotely. Expanded learning programs also focus on creating safe, supportive learning environments that foster a sense of belonging for all students, reinforce high expectations for behavior, and inspire engagement, skill development, and mastery—all of which are enhanced and deepened through the trust built between students and expanded learning staff. In this time of dysregulation and readjustment, expanded learning providers are key allies in reaching students and rebalancing their equilibrium for learning.
How: Innovation, Time, and People
There are multiple models being considered for a redesigned school structure to comply with health standards and physical distancing requirements. After-school programs can help in each model. Across all of the following configurations, expanded learning providers can ensure that students are having positive social interactions with adults and peers in safe and supportive environments that value youth engagement and learning.
Some districts may have A and B groups that attend on alternating days or in AM and PM rotations. In either case, expanded learning staff could be
- working with the group that is not currently in class,
- doing innovative and engaging activities that build on the lessons taught in class,
- supporting students in completing projects assigned in class, or
- doing computer science activities, theatre, visual arts, or science to enrich students' learning experiences.
Different Grade Levels
Similarly, if districts choose to have in-school programming for younger students and continue distance learning for older students, after-school providers could schedule in-person activities for the older students so that they have opportunities to be with peers, practice social and emotional skills, get support with their school work, and have enriching activities to keep them engaged and active.
Episodic Distance Learning
Should the pandemic re-emerge and require periodic distance learning, after-school providers can partner in ensuring that all students have remote access to learning and school meals, and are also maintaining connections with adults from their school communities.
All In-Person Instruction
After-school providers will still be essential partners in helping students readjust to the school environment and re-engage with learning.
What: Eager Partners
What are your next steps?
- Find out who is offering after-school and summer programs at or near your schools.
- Invite them to talk about their approach and their programs.
- Engage them in the planning process as early as possible to align with instructional programs to accelerate learning. They often know much about the local community and its resources and opportunities. When asked, they are good at coming up with innovative solutions and flexible models for supporting the students.
- Be clear about your parameters and expectations, and then continue to engage as equal partners. Like you, expanded learning providers are professionals and experts in their field.
- Do any existing memoranda of understandings (MOUs) require updates on modifications to ensure students and staff are safe?
Different Types of Expanded Learning Programs
After-school and summer programs are often run by nonprofit, community-based organizations, sometimes under contracts with school districts for public funding like the state After School Education and Safety (ASES) Program or the federal 21st Century Community Learning Center (21st CCLC) and After School Safety and Enrichment for Teens (ASSETs). Sometimes these programs operate with private grants and/or charge parent fees. They may run programs on school sites or in the community.
2 California Department of Education, 2018, Characteristics of Schools and Students Participating in After School
Programs 2017 Report. https://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/ex/documents/lrafterschoolprograms17.pdf.
3 California Department of Education, 2014, Quality Standards for Expanded Learning in California: Creating and Implementing a Shared Vision of Quality. https://www.afterschoolnetwork.org/sites/main/files/file-attachments/quality_standards.pdf?1490047028.
4 Turnaround for Children, n.d., “The Science.” https://www.turnaroundusa.org/what-we-do/the-science/.