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Anne O’Brien is Deputy Director for Learning First Alliance. She previously worked for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeast Louisiana, where she managed first school-based mentoring and then...
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Expanding Learning Time – And Opportunities

The call to expand learning time to ensure that American students remain competitive with their international peers has become quite popular. While the rationale is perhaps a bit misguided (some evidence suggests that our students already experience as much instructional time as their peers~ and other research confirms that teachers in the United States spend more time on instruction than teachers in other nations do)~ there are certainly reasons to focus on the issue~ not least of which is the summer learning loss that disproportionately impacts our nations most disadvantaged youth.

But as those in the education community know~ it is not necessarily the idea of extending learning time that is appealing it is the idea of expanding learning opportunities. Partly in response to federal accountability measures~ curriculum in many schools particularly those serving predominantly disadvantaged students has narrowed to focus on reading and math at the expense of the arts~ physical education~ civics and other subjects. In addition~ the budget cuts of the Great Recession caused schools to further pull back in areas like art~ sports and extracurricular activities and~ as a recent survey points out~ the sequester has had an impact as well.

Yet in all these cuts~ wealthier students are less likely to be impacted than their lower-income peers~ in large part because their parents ensure they are exposed to enrichment opportunities either at school (perhaps paid for by fundraising efforts) or in private lessons. This discrepancy combines with hunger~ illness (and a lack of health insurance)~ mobility and other issues that impact disadvantaged students at a much greater rate than their wealthier peers to form a large opportunity gap. Schools can address this gap~ but for budgetary~ capacity and other reasons~ they cannot do it alone.

Community partnerships must play a key role in expanding learning opportunities. But what does that look like in practice? Over the summer~ the Coalition for Community Schools featured a 10-part blog series on the subject. Each post discussed how a community came together to address its specific challenges using one of the many different strategies of expanded learning opportunities (ELOs).

For example~ in New Haven~ afterschool programming has improved substantially thanks to a unique collaboration between the city~ school district and United Way called Boost!~ which draws on an extensive network of resources to provide schools~ students and families the programs and services they need to thrive.

Long committed to afterschool programming but lacking the capacity to ensure consistency city-wide~ the district had previously left this programming to individual schools~ resulting in wide disparities in both the quantity and quality of experiences available to students. Boost! is helping coordinate and grow afterschool programming in 11 New Haven schools. One key aspect of their work: Asset-mapping. Teams made up of staff~ parents and community stakeholders create a map of existing programs and services at a school. Boost! provides status reports that demonstrate how students and schools are doing based on attendance records~ emotional and behavioral health statistics~ feedback from school climate surveys~ and data from school nurses and the physical education department. By comparing asset maps to status reports~ schools identify their areas of need. United Way then finds organizations to address them. For example~ a school learned that its 6th and 7th grade girls were disproportionately overweight~ so it partnered with hip hop dance and non-contact kick boxing programs to provide afterschool physical activity opportunities. Other schools have partnered with community organizations to offer afterschool activities ranging from filmmaking to model Congress to swimming lessons.

This is just one of many ways a community is addressing the challenges it faces. Other posts in this series focus on other ways to expand learning opportunities~ including providing new opportunities over the summer (as in Ogden~ Utah) and on the weekend (as in Hartford~ Connecticut)~ and by extending the school year (as in Des Moines~ Iowa).

While the expansion of learning opportunities looks different in each site featured~ there is one commonality: Schools and communities committed to working together on behalf of all children. If we are serious about expanding learning opportunities for all students~ we dont need new accountability policy or more standardized tests measuring more subjects we need all communities to make that same commitment.

This content originally appeared by Anne O'Brien on Learning First Alliance's blog and is posted here with permission.