The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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Quality Summer Learning In Action: Encouraging Dancers to Create and Learn

Kids DancingAbout 20 tweens pile into the unassuming studio space of their ballet school in mid-July. There are no frills here. The waiting area is small and a bit disheveled; the cinder block building has seen its share of life. But look closer: there’s magic inside.

The dancers are not exactly sure what to expect from this week of “choreography camp,” but are glad to be there and ready for anything. Starting from nothing, in five days they will create a 20-minute ballet for family and friends. The director says she has it easy this week because the kids do all the work. The dance choreography might be the most straightforward part; they are also charged with music selection, costume and set design, hair and makeup. They first choose which story they will perform, selecting Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, perhaps knowing on some level that the fun and magic of the story will parallel their own experience that week.

As a parent, I watched the final performance (criss-cross applesauce on the floor) with a huge smile on my face, amazed to see what these kids could accomplish in a week--without many resources beyond, of course, the staff’s and their own creativity, skill, and knowledge. I tapped my toe to the jazzy music they selected, laughed at the Oompa-Loompa’s pigtails and freckles, and the squirrels’ (who separate out the “bad nuts”) tails constructed out of cardboard tubes and old nylons, and was impressed by the level of dance, particularly of the older girls.

As a research associate of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, I watched with a more serious eye, knowing that there were many best practices here in the room that could be shared with the larger field. What made the program seem so magical? How could the director, along with several other staff members, keep the youth so happy, relaxed, and engaged all week and guide them to create something wonderful?

The answer is simple: They do it by using many of the research-based quality practices that we know work, and are measured by field-tested tools (the APT Observation Tool, for example).

Activities were of a high quality and included:

  • Youth choice and decision making – Each decision was made by the students, so the ultimate product was theirs.
  • Project-based learning – The activities were all part of an ongoing project (the production of a ballet), designed to promote specific skills and concepts over time.
  • Opportunities for collaboration – Youth were organized into groups based on ability and age, and worked together toward a common goal.
  • Challenging activities – The week’s activities all provided challenges and stimulated thinking as youth learned and applied new skills and solved problems.

Staff were of a high quality. The director has a master’s degree in education and decades of experience teaching youth, and the assistant director is mid-way through her master’s degree in counseling. Leadership development, which helps youth and at the same time sustains quality staff, has always been built in; the small dancers hold the even smaller dancers’ hands at performances, older dancers assist the younger ones in classes, and the director offers a more formal leadership program, thus creating well-trained staff. In fact, the staff assisting at this week’s camp were former students.

But it’s what they do that counts. They:

  • Built positive relationships and supported individual youth by engaging in friendly conversation with youth, encouraging individual youth as they worked on their own goals, and listening actively and patiently.
  • Promoted youth engagement by being enthusiastic, actively engaging in the activities with youth, and helping youth think through problems themselves rather than just offering answers. They also engaged youth in reflection and feedback. The director even sneakily – and skillfully – used the time at the performance while waiting for each expected guest to arrive to engage the dancers in a discussion about what surprised them, what had been hard, and what they had learned.

At the end of the final performance, the dancers took a big bow and soaked in the well-earned applause. Was it really magic I witnessed, or simply high-quality out-of-school time programming in action? I think both – aren’t they the same thing, after all? Like any good trick, it only looks like magic.

Elizabeth Starr, M.Ed., is a research associate at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) at the Wellesley Centers for Women since 2007. Her work focuses on professional development and system-building for the field of afterschool and youth development.

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Guest — icodecoppell
Nice to see such a beautiful schooling environment. kids need to learn in a good atmosphere. Our kids also learning robotics and c... Read More
Thursday, 05 December 2019 06:50
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A Week to Appreciate Afterschool Professionals – April 24-28

It’s Afterschool Professionals Appreciation Week! Perhaps we should back up - what is an Afterschool Professional? Maybe you call them staff, teachers, or care providers. There are many names for the same thing – someone trained to work with youth during out-of-school time.

This week is a chance to recognize the “professional” in Afterschool Professionals. We know that afterschool matters for kids, and that afterschool professionals impact the quality of that programming. Some fun facts:

  • Participation in afterschool programs consistently increased from 2004 to 2014, rising by nearly 2 million children from 2009 to 2014 alone. In 2014, 10.2 million children (18%) participated in an afterschool program.
  • Regular participation in afterschool programs has been shown to help narrow the achievement gap between high- and low-income students in math, improve academic and behavioral outcomes, and reduce school absences.
  • The Afterschool field has defined what it takes to provide quality afterschool programming. The National AfterSchool Association (NAA) has adopted a set of Core Knowledge and Competencies, and at least 24 states have their own versions.
  • Afterschool Professionals are well-educated. A recent NAA survey of its members found that 34% of staff surveyed reported having a Masters or Doctorate degree.

And some less fun facts:

  • Less than half of afterschool professionals surveyed have access to health insurance and 39% do not have any benefits (such as insurance, paid vacation, sick leave, retirement savings).
  • The field suffers from high turnover (with some estimates up to 40% annually), with pay cited as the number one reason people leave their job.

So how can you show your appreciation? The actions of this week should be twofold. First, express your individual appreciation for those in your community who work with youth – maybe your own children - afterschool. Give them a card with words of heartfelt thanks, bake them some muffins, say thanks. But don’t stop there. Second, take some time to appreciate the incredible contribution of afterschool professionals in improving youth academic, behavioral, and social emotional outcomes. Given the proposed budget cuts of the current administration, it seems an opportune time to also suggest you contact your representatives and let them know how much you support afterschool professionals (the Afterschool Alliance also has information to guide you).

This week is a chance to both thank Afterschool Professionals for keeping our kids safe and happy, and to think bigger about what it takes to be an afterschool professional and the huge positive impact they have on the lives of youth. So, to all the Afterschool Professionals, thank you!

Betsy Starr, M.Ed. is a research associate at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) at the Wellesley Centers for Women. Her work focuses on professional development and system-building for the field of afterschool and youth development.

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Partnerships are Critical to Student Success

A group of students sitting together while reading books

The days are getting shorter, the air feels crisper here in the Northeast, and children everywhere are heading back to school -- a welcome return to routine and to the exciting possibilities of a new year, but still it’s hard to let go of summer. Fresh and sweet in our minds here at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) (and hopefully in many of your minds, too) are the unique joys of summer -- yes, popsicles and bonus hours of daylight, but also the special learning opportunities that summer brings.

Summer learning programs offer the chance to develop interests and skills, focus on social and emotional learning, and engage youth in positive ways. Summer learning programs can also offer an important strategy in closing the achievement gap between low-income children and their middle- and upper-class peers.

Luckily, these kinds of experiences do not need to be packed away with our shorts and flip flops. More and more, out-of-school time (OST) programs are partnering with schools to create amazing, year-round learning experiences for children and youth. At NIOST, we believe collaborations like these are a critical ingredient to student success, and we applaud the work they are doing to engage with children and youth throughout the year.

The U.S. Department of Education’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) program, the only federal funding stream dedicated to afterschool, actually requires grantees to work in collaboration with schools. In practice, partnering with schools may simply mean that afterschool programs communicate student goals and learning needs with school staff, which is a great start.

Some programs, though, are going further -- modeling how a true partnership can produce positive youth outcomes. Through my work with the US Department of Education, I have had the pleasure of seeing such programs in action. For example, Rhode Island’s 21st CCLC grant supports an innovative Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELO) Initiative at Central Falls High School that allows students, driven by their interests, to earn academic credit in alternative ways. Students work closely with teachers and community members who provide hands-on learning either after school or in the summer. The students then create rigorous final products and do presentations to demonstrate their learning. Early data indicate that the approach is improving graduation rates.

Boston After School & Beyond (BASB) is a public-private collaboration that advances student learning through a coordinated approach to school and community partnerships. Through initiatives such as Advancing Quality Partnerships (AQP) and the Summer Learning Project, BASB empowers organizations that serve Boston Public Schools (BPS) students after school and in the summer to provide high-quality social and emotional learning opportunities and to communicate with schools about the skills students develop at their programs. NIOST has helped BASB investigate the nature and functioning of such relationships. Schools, community partners, youth, and families are finding value in these intentional partnerships.

One of the major strengths of partnerships like these is that they are able to leverage family, school, and community resources to chip away at nonacademic barriers to learning and healthy development. Schools are ill-equipped to assume this responsibility alone, and teachers often lack sufficient resources to address the various needs of their students, such as learning disabilities, mental health issues, family instability, negative peer influences, and poverty. The flexibility of the OST field, backed by its expertise in positive youth development, enrichment, and social and emotional learning, can help to fill these gaps in our school system by complementing and supporting traditional education. So, rather than expecting schools and teachers to do this work alone, collaborative partnerships with OST programs can be integral building blocks on the road to educational equity.

As summer comes to a close and school-year routines settle in, remember that not every part of summer will leave us. Thanks to the creative partnerships between schools and OST programs, many of our nation’s youth (and the staff at NIOST) are looking forward to the continuation of collaborative, year-round learning opportunities.

Betsy Starr, M.Ed.is a research associate at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) at the Wellesley Centers for Women. Her work focuses on professional development and system-building for the field of afterschool and youth development.

 

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Professional Development is a Key to Quality

On December 10th, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which includes several provisions for out-of-school time (OST). Importantly, the act gives more flexibility to state education agencies to put resources toward training, professional development, and quality improvement for OST programs and staff. At the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST), we are strong believers in the power of quality programs, and are working to help the field achieve quality for all.

As OST begins to take on a larger role--with more than 10.2 million children and youth now participating in OST programs, public and private investments in afterschool programs increasing dramatically over the last two decades, and the nation’s leaders looking to afterschool programs to help with everything from closing the achievement gap to improving our kids’ social emotional skills--quality programming is more essential than ever. Not just any program will help achieve desired student outcomes. We have a solid research base showing that program quality is what determines whether programs meet their youth developmental and academic goals, and that higher quality programs deliver better experiences for kids (see, for example, this research). However, quality is uneven across, and even within, afterschool programs.

So, how do we promote and ensure quality? One major key is staff training and professional development. Since NIOST’s early role in the Massachusetts Afterschool Research Study (2005), which found that programs with more highly educated and trained staff demonstrated greater staff and youth engagement and better activities than programs with less educated and trained staff, evidence has been mounting that professional development and staff training can significantly affect program quality. In short, OST programs need to be of high quality to have a positive impact, and a main path to quality is through staff training. But, of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Where is an OST program to begin? How do you know quality when you see it, and what should staff training and professional development look like?

The OST field has come a long way toward understanding what makes up quality and how to get there. Many cities and states have developed research-based Quality Program Standards and Core Knowledge and Competencies for professionals (like those adopted by the National Afterschool Association) defining quality programs and practice. Continuous Quality Improvement--a process by which one defines quality, assesses it, and then works to support its growth and development--is becoming commonplace.

 

Assessment tools can further help programs measure components of quality and guide professional development. They can also empower OST professionals to build the skills they need to improve quality. The Assessment of Program Practices Tool (APT), part of NIOST’s Afterschool Program Assessment System, is designed to help programs evaluate and strengthen practices that research suggests are linked with positive youth outcomes. Combining observation and self-assessment, APT looks at the overall afterschool program, homework time, and activities. It helps staff observe and demonstrate their skills, characteristics, and program features that contribute to measurable positive child and youth outcomes.

It’s great to see federal lawmakers agreeing that quality matters in OST. With clarity of vision from an assessment tool, programs can focus their staff training and professional development on areas that need improvement, and best leverage the ESSA funding.

Betsy Starr, M.Ed.is a research associate at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) at the Wellesley Centers for Women. Her work focuses on professional development and system-building for the field of afterschool and youth development. (Video: Ellen Gannett, M.Ed., is director of NIOST.)

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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