Last year at this time, U.S. education was grappling with the anxiety of how to teach students without sending them all back to school. A primary goal for most major systems was naturally to supply internet and laptops to children so they could continue their education. As the months went on, many after-school programs and churches stepped up to provide space for families not able to be home, and a solution they thought would be sufficient while they weathered the spread of Covid.
Walking amidst the computers that were provided for urban students in after-school programs offered by groups such as the Philadelphia Youth Basketball (PYB) program, it became apparent that education had not caught up with technology. PYB, which typically provides academic enrichment and basketball skills practice and development, pivoted to hosting learning pods, to make up for challenges students were having because they had only been given a device with little educational support. Instructors transitioned from sports and mentorship roles to providing tutoring and direct instruction. Students’ days became more structured, and the need for doing hours of remedial work to catch up in the evening was practically eliminated.
Originally created as enrichment programs to support the needs of students in working families, after-school programs serve a myriad of needs. They help students without a strong family infrastructure, kids in troubled or failing schools or those who endure other barriers to learning success. Some of the most well-known are led by the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. They provide high quality programming for kids to grow, thrive, and learn with a world class club experience connecting students with mentors and trained support staff.
Like Philly’s PYB, after-school programs all over the country began to look more and more like traditional schools. In the greater Boston area, for example, YMCAs amended their typical after-school programming to “hold small, in-person learning pods for 60 children a day” where parents could take comfort “knowing that [their] child is safe and learning.”
Through these programs, parents began to understand that despite technological advances made in almost every other industry, even some of the best schools hadn’t entirely mastered how best to educate kids using the latest technology. Simply having devices was proving insufficient. Parents already fed up with the pace of school reopening policy would now have to take content matters into their own hands too.
Were it not for these organizations, there would have been no education for a considerable percentage of students last year. After-school programs began to fill the void by identifying existing programs that utilize technology in responsive and effective ways, tapping into providers such as Khan Academies, Edmentum, and thousands of other technology-based education companies.
Communities in Schools (CIS) also stepped up to create a safety net and learning environment for the thousands of students disaffected by their assigned school during Covid. CIS is a recognized nationwide after-school provider which aims “to surround students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life,” which serves in excess of 1.7 million students throughout 121 affiliated organizations across the U.S.
The result was the realization by many community leaders and philanthropists that successful after-school programs could become the school for students, and actually be better for them than the large education bureaucracies that continue to fail a majority of them year after year.
Imagine an after-school program, where, using a blended learning model, students learn through technology, and are guided by the same exceptional coaching they receive in their leadership, sports or arts training. What parent whose student is zoned to a failing public school would not want the chance to put their child in a school that is run by the same trusted people who help them to learn, to grow and keep them out of harm’s way after school?
The concept of successful community support programs administering full-time schooling is not new. In fact, the Boys and Girls Clubs were among the first non-profit community organizations to start charter schools in states such as Arizona and Massachusetts. Geoffrey Canada had this in mind when he took his Harlem Children’s Zone and started the Promise Academy Charter Schools. As Canada says, “everything we do—from world-class instruction, to exceptional extracurricular activities, social-emotional supports, nutritious meals, and more—is designed to fulfill our promise.” The Afterschool Alliance reports that “participation in after-school programs has consistently increased over the past 10 years, rising by nearly 2 million children in the last five years alone.”
Still, these figures have done little to stem the persistent tide of inequity in education: Most of these after-school programs serve the underserved, striving to help them do their homework and to learn after the classroom empties and school is out. Many students need these after-school programs not so they can advance beyond grade level, but so they can just accomplish what students in great schools are expected to do and supported with every day. Contrast that to many suburban neighborhoods, where parents often hire tutors to keep their kids on track. During Covid, parents formed pods, and purchased and downloaded outstanding lectures and lessons which got them through the pandemic. New hybrid, or blended programs, that use refined educational techniques were a lifesaver for so many families who had the financial means to hire teachers/educators.
Covid brought to light just how inequitable education is for most students, before, during and after school, and that one needn’t be in a building called a school to be in school. The time is ripe for turning trusted after-school programs into schools.