We and many fellow advocates were excited to see that California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent budget announcement included $4.6 billion for expanded learning time, including afterschool and summer learning.
We were also encouraged to hear both Newsom and State Board President Linda Darling-Hammond urge Californians to rethink the traditional school calendar, something that has been talked about for decades, but not acted upon.
But with such a huge infusion of cash slated to go out the door by March — a very rapid timeline driven by necessity — there is a danger of not using this money as wisely as we must.
California has the largest, most robust system of publicly-funded expanded learning programs in the nation, serving over half a million students every day after school. Nine out of 10 students served are students of color, a third are English learners, and at least one in four of California’s homeless students participate in these programs.
The state-funded After School Education and Safety (ASES) program and federally funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers consistently demonstrate their positive impact on student engagement, school attendance, social and emotional development, and academic skills. Both programs offer tutoring, enrichment, social and emotional supports, physical activity and more. They are commonly staffed by a combination of district personnel and community-based organizations, whose staff often live in the same communities as their students and are a huge asset in building trusting relationships with students and families.
Only $38 million out of the nearly $800 million in California’s expanded learning funds are earmarked for summer, a longstanding gap for students whose families can’t afford camps and other programs that keep them learning and engaged over the summer. Now, with likely new investments in the state’s “Early Action” budget, one of the most urgent tasks for educators is planning for summer.
Fortunately we have solid research on what it takes to advance learning and well-being outcomes for students over the summer months. The RAND Corporation’s long-term study affirms that summer programs with the best student outcomes have key things in common: Full-day (roughly 6 hours) of programming; collaborative staffing by certified teachers and community-based educators; five to six weeks of operation; and a mix of academic learning and enrichment in a camp-like environment. Effective programs are built around student interests so kids want to be there — and if kids come consistently, they get more benefits. Common sense, but something we ignored in the era of purely remedial summer school.
In addition, the research is clear that outcomes are better when students participate in a summer learning program for at least two consecutive summers, so policymakers should consider this while shaping investments currently on the table.
The community-based Aim High summer program offered at no cost to low-income middle school students in the Bay Area, operates for 5 weeks, is staffed by a mix of teachers and community-based educators, and provides project-based learning in humanities, math, social-emotional development and college and career readiness. A 2020 study of Aim High by the John Gardner Center at Stanford showed that participation in the program resulted in significant school-year benefits such as a 22% percent reduction in chronic-absenteeism, a 37% reduction in suspension rates, and a 6 point improvement in English-Language Arts scores.
Programs like this one have been exceptionally creative during the pandemic. Last summer, Aim High students created a podcast about the early effects of the pandemic on daily life and with the help of a local recording studio, students learned how to record, interview and produce their own podcasts, all from their homes.
Teachers, many of whom are fatigued from a year of distance learning and who have lingering concerns about Covid safety, may not want to work this summer and should have the space to recover and plan for next year. That will mean looking beyond school personnel and thinking creatively about partners we can bring to the table: community-based organizations, parks and recreation agencies, affordable housing organizations, libraries and more.
In addition, to expand summer program availability, school campuses must be available to house them. We’ve seen far too many campuses closed this year, severely hindering the ability to get critical services to students. Expanded learning providers will bend over backwards to help staff programs this summer, but they shouldn’t be left with nowhere to serve kids. School campuses are taxpayer funded community assets and the state must require that campuses be available for summer programs.
Whether we end up with the full $4.6 billion Gov. Newsom is proposing, or something different, it will be much more than we spend now. However, with needs being as massive as they are across ages and student groups, it will be important to target resources to students who have most struggled. Proposals like Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez’s AB 104 do just this, by prioritizing highly vulnerable students such as homeless youth and high school students at risk of not graduating.
Let’s not reinvent — rather let’s leverage our experts and existing infrastructure. Let’s leverage research and common sense. Let’s leverage our community assets. Let’s swiftly remove barriers that linger, nearly a year into this crisis. This is important not just for right now, but as we rebuild in better ways.
Jennifer Peck is the president of The Partnership for Children and Youth, a nonprofit that supports afterschool and summer learning programs, school and summer meals, and social and emotional learning, with an emphasis on California’s most under-served students.
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