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When it Comes to Expanded Learning, Data is the Catalyst

BoostIt was early on a Monday morning, with schools closed in the aftermath of wintry weather, when more than 160 eager guests made their way to the GradNation Summit, “Aligning Afterschool, Growing Graduates: Greenville County Afterschool Summit” in Greenville, South Carolina.

A diverse array of attendees, including K-12 educators, higher education institutions, elected officials, business leaders, afterschool providers, nonprofits, law enforcement officers, philanthropists, parents and youth came together to learn about the value of expanded learning and contribute to the strengthening of system-wide collaboration.

Although Greenville County Schools have significantly improved graduation rates over the past several years (currently over 81% graduate in four years), keynote speaker Chris Smith of Boston Afterschool and Beyond pointed out that a high school diploma is often inadequate for being workforce and college-ready.

“Great schools are not enough,” Smith said. “We need to extend the classroom to the community.”

Why Expanded Learning Matters

At the summit, we saw first-hand how important expanded learning is through a youth and parent panel. Ashley Martinez, a 4th grader participating in a neighborhood-based afterschool program, said, “The best thing about this program is that they have helped me understand my homework and I didn’t understand it before.” In her final comments she added, “One day when I’m older I want to help other kids after school.”

Other programs that the panel highlighted included a college preparatory program for students whose “potential out-distances their means” and an afterschool program that teaches entrepreneurship at a community garden.

These kinds of expanded learning programs help students succeed academically, and it also helps them develop social-emotional skills. Unfortunately, too many low-income children don’t have access to these opportunities, leading to a growing “opportunity gap” in America.

Sharing Data and Collaborating Across Sectors

BoostTo mitigate this opportunity gap, keynote speaker Chris Smith said we need to collaborate across sectors by sharing data and evaluation tools for measuring outcomes across the system.

Smith used the Achieve-Connect-Thrive (ACT) Framework developed by Boston After School and Beyond as an example. The ACT Framework connects programs by giving providers a “common language,” and the ability to gauge program performance and progress compared to their peers. It also measures “navigational skills” for youth that are strongly associated with the likelihood of high school graduation and success in college, careers, and life.

If there’s one thing we took away from the summit, it’s that data is the catalyst for improving and expanding learning, which in turn provides crucial evidence for what is working in education and youth development.

This is why my organization, BOOST, will collect data from summit questionnaires and report the findings at an upcoming convening. This is the first step toward initiating a county-wide survey of expanded learning led by a task force of stakeholders in order to make more information available to parents and schools, identify gaps in access, and assess and improve program performance and capacity.

As a result of the summit, many afterschool providers who may have felt isolated in their efforts are now encouraged by the possibility of collaboration, and those who may have been slightly skeptical or just curious are now convinced that expanded learning is a key to higher graduation rates and students’ long-term success.

Everyone came away with renewed energy: ready to move forward, ready to meet the challenges facing families, and ready to work together to meet those challenges.

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Melissa Huff is the Director of BOOST, a program of the United Way of Greenville County in South Carolina, which focuses on increasing access to high quality expanded learning opportunities for youth. Its vision is a community where all children have abundant learning opportunities that will increase their chances for success.