Across the nation, extracurricular programming seeks to better prepare youth for tougher testing. Uncommon Journalism takes a look at three innovative out-of-school time operations that are prepping students for more rigorous requirements.
By: James Swift
Earlier this year, the Education Week Research Center released its Quality Counts 2014 report, and it appears as if grades for the United States education system, as a whole, are slipping.
The report is based upon survey results asking participants to evaluate things like efforts to improve high school graduation rates and close the achievement gap. In 2013, the system scored a fairly unimpressive C-minus, a considerable drop-off from the C-plus ranking the report bestowed upon the U.S. system in 2012’s report.
“When I see these types of results, I think most of us ask this most basic question of why, and there isn‘t a simple or straightforward answer to this,” said Nikki Yamashiro, a research associate for the Afterschool Alliance, in a recent webinar titled “Afterschool and the Common Core Standards.”
She then presented two high-school math test questions, one of which was littered with grammatical errors -- including the use of the term “weighted” as a stand-in for “weighed” -- and a third, multi-part question asking students to calculate numerous factors, including time, distance and speed. The final question, she said, was answered accurately by more than half of students in Shanghai; by comparison, a paltry 9 percent of U.S. students were able to solve the same problem.
According to Yamashiro, the intent of the much-debated Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS) is to not only raise overall student expectations and achievements, but to do so in a manner that’s evenly distributed across the nation. Additional supports outside the normal classroom hours, she said, could prove pivotal in helping students meet the more demanding needs of Common Core.
“We know that after school programs are a space where kids can really dig into projects,” she said, “and spend time on hands-on learning, experiment with concepts and have that freedom to make mistakes and then even fail, in an environment that encourages learning through that experience.”
A Two-Pronged Approach to Math and English in California
Liz Bamberg and Kelly Matteri, two teachers in Marin City, Calif., operate an afterschool program called “Bridge the Gap College Prep.”
The program reaches nearly 40 percent of Marin County youth, with a particular emphasis on African-American and Hispanic students from lower-income households.
“Our students will develop the necessary cognitive, emotional, social and academic skills that will allow them to graduate and become productive citizens and leaders,” said Matteri.
The program serves students from the first grade to the twelfth. A weekly, one-on-one evening tutoring program is offered for students up to the third grade, and an extended learning day (ELD) program provides biweekly services for students in the fourth to eighth grade. For high school students, “Bridge the Gap” offers a more intensive ELD program, which consists of three and a half hour blocks three to four times per week.
“We really want to look at the whole person our child is becoming,” Bamberg stated. “Not just their G.P.A.”
Many students, Matteri said, experienced difficulties with lengthier, more open-ended math questions. Reliant upon rote understandings of mathematical concepts, they were “shocked,” she said, that they actually had to write down their “mathematical thoughts” in order to reach solutions.
“Based on the results we saw, both in terms of the scores on the assessment and the sort of qualitative results we got from students’ responses and teachers’ responses,” Bamberg said, “we saw that in addition to meeting their academic needs, we also needed to address some of the social emotional skills that they would need in order to succeed in these new, more challenging problems.”
Instead of focusing on grade-level standards, Bamberg said the program took a more student-specific, developmental approach to helping young people tighten up their conceptual understandings of ratios, proportions and fractions. The program, she said, also aims to soothe the pains of faltering in problem-solving, encouraging students to view incorrect answers as a normal, and often necessary, step in seeking solutions.
Regarding English language arts (ELA), Matteri said the program seeks to create a “safe space” for students to develop their own voices via “personal narrative writing.”
“We have a structural framework for that,” Matteri stated. “And we also include vocabulary development to give them that comfort level that they need.” The progress some students have made under the program, she said, was amazing.
“We’ve had students who would crumple up their papers at the beginning and throw the away because they were too personal,” she said. “And now, they’re standing up in front of an entire group, and reading their work.”
In Baltimore, No Debating the Merits of One Extracurricular Program
In Maryland, Jen Wheeler takes a different approach to out-of-school time, Common Core-aligned programming. An English teaching and learning manager for the Baltimore Urban Debate League (BUDL), she utilizes the module as a unique means of helping Baltimore city school pupils develop skills critical to CCSS success.
The curriculum, tiered off into elementary, junior varsity and varsity skill-levels, seeks to help students “develop lines of argument using appropriate pieces of evidence.” The competitive policy debate league has been in existence since 1999. Last year, BUDL were the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues National Champions.
“We provide comprehensive services to support our league,” Wheeler said. “Not only do we plan and execute 14 middle and high school tournaments every year [but] we also provide support to our debate team coaches and their twice weekly team practices.”
In 2011, Baltimore City public school teachers began attending seminars on Common Core curriculum integration. A year later, BUDL began a professional development (PD) program that sought to connect CCSS materials to the debate program.
“The skills and strategies of competitive policy debate were not going to change based on the Common Core, so why make the connection between debate skills and these new Common Core Standards?” she asked. “At BUDL, we knew if we could align the work that our teacher coaches did during the day in their classrooms, the work that they’d be doing after school with their debate teams, their jobs would be that much easier, and they would do it that much better.”
Common core alignment, Wheeler said, results in students getting a “double dose” of CCSS via the program, a prospect she said many principals find highly attractive.
“One of our goals for this season is for students to identify and reflect on what makes a good debater, and determine ways to improve skills over time,” Wheeler said. “That goal aligns to Common Core’s ‘Habits of Mind,’ including students demonstrating independence.”
The debate program, she added, also helps students comprehend, as well as critique. Independently interpreting a judge’s ballot, she said, ties closely to CCSS anchor standards, in particular an ELA standard which asks students to make logical inferences from specific textual evidence in order to draw conclusions.
Among other things, BUDL incorporates after school programmatic support and additional teacher-coach support services to successfully execute the program.
“Putting something on paper does not necessarily translate to successful implementation,” she said. “Not only do our program managers at BUDL make school visits, but twice a year, we hold coaches meetings…they discuss the rewards and challenges of being a coach, and offer suggestions about how BUDL can make the after school coaching job easier.”
Last year, about 450 students participated in the BUDL after school program. Wheeler said that not only did students involved in the program have higher attendance rates than other children, they also posted higher Maryland State Assessment scores in reading and math than their peers.
The positive outcomes of competitive policy debate programming, Wheeler said, aren’t just limited to the Baltimore area.
“Ninety percent of Urban Debaters nationwide graduate from high school in four years,” she concluded, “and 72 percent of Urban Debaters with the greatest risk of dropping out graduate in four years.”
Making Parental Connectivity A Priority in Atlanta
Tangee Allen and Maria Armstrong are co-founders of Raising Expectations (RE), a 501(c)3 Atlanta-based out-of-school time youth development and dropout prevention organization. Allen said the project began “organically” in 1995. “Over time, it’s just naturally evolved into our life’s work,” she said.
“The community that we serve is under-resourced and marginalized,” Allen added. “We consider ourselves both a school and community-based organization -- because we want to make sure that we’re well versed on the types of home environments our children are coming from.”
More than 1,000 youths have been served by RE since its inception. The organization is currently supporting 75 young people, who are either in college or first generation high school graduates.
RE offers three “signature” programs; one catering to third-through-eighth graders, one servicing high school students and a project-based, summer STEM-learning initiative. The program serving elementary and middle school students, called “Project DREAM,” utilizes an Afterschool Tutorial Academy model which incorporates a CCSS-aligned curriculum.
“There are a lot of things we do intentionally to be sure that we’re complementing the efforts that are going on during the school day,” Allen said. Among other practices, the after school program implements parent liaisons, home check-ups and weekly meetings with math teachers and instruction specialists.
“We really try to make sure that the parents are really engaged in what’s going on in the schools,” Armstrong said. “There’s a real seamless way that we’re communicating. Instead of a parent receiving 15 phone calls from different people at the school…they actually get one call from our staff member, who gets to share all the information about what’s going on.”
Allen said it is important for after school instruction to mirror in-school lessons and lectures, but in a manner that’s more “hands on.” Instead of simply handing out printed materials in an “old school” manner, she said the program strives to engage children through the use of “manipulatives” and educational modalities that encompass numerous learning styles.
“One of the things that’s really critical for us is that we’re trying to eliminate barriers to participation,” Armstrong said. “Not only for the kids we are serving, but the families, because what we can all agree on is that when you have families that are engaged with the school and community partners, we really have the best chance of making sure there our young people really are accomplishing the goals [and] learning the information.”
An important aspect of RE services, Allen said, was “breaking down” the meaning and intent of CCSS to parents. “This is an opportunity for us to develop a relationship, which is very important given the model that we have,” she stated.
The program seeks to instill in children values that correspond to the CCSS “Habits of Mind,” Armstrong said, such as punctuality and outside-the-box thinking. “Our organization is all about setting the foundation and getting kids to understand that they actually can accomplish goals,” she concluded. “So we set the bar high, and oftentimes, kids will meet us there.”
Uncommon Journalism, 2014.