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Igniting Youth to Success through Afterschool

By guest blogger Brandon Tice

Minnesota faces a racial gap in educational and employment outcomes that ranks among the worst in the nation. Ignite Afterschool is facing this challenge by helping all of Minnesota's young people be college and career ready. Brandon Tice, Communications and Policy Associate for Ignite Afterschool, shares.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" We frequently pester young people with this question, hoping to learn more about them and their aspirations. It's a bit unfair, because it's such a loaded question. We're really asking them, "What are your interests? What are your values? What do you have to contribute to society?" Yet it's easy to understand why adults are overly curious about the role young people see for themselves in the world. We can sense that the world they are learning to navigate is shifting beneath their feet, and that there are immense challenges on the horizon. The world is becoming more connected, the unsolved issues are mounting, and technology is rapidly changing the way we work and live. How do we prepare our young people to tackle the opportunities and challenges that this uncertain future presents? What are the skills they need to be successful?

As with many complex problems we face today, consulting the data provides a helpful starting point to understand the problem and identify solutions. In Minnesota, the data reveal an alarming state of affairs. "Skills at the Center," a 2012 report released by our Governor's Workforce Development Council (GWDC), illustrates how much our state relies on a highly skilled workforce for its prosperity, and how that prosperity is threatened as demographic trends, economic forces, and long-standing racial disparities converge to create the perfect storm. 

These trends include an aging population, a gap between the skills available in the workforce and the skills employers need, an increasingly diverse racial makeup, and a racial gap in educational and employment outcomes that ranks among the worst in the nation. Taken together, these forces present a daunting challenge but also a call to arms. In a state that prides itself on its commitment to education, Minnesota's policymakers are now realizing that the only way to address a problem of this magnitude is for all sectors to work together, an approach that is summarized in the title of GWDC's policy recommendations report, "All Hands on Deck." 

At Ignite Afterschool, Minnesota's afterschool network, we know that a key solution to preparing Minnesota's youth for a rapidly changing world is to ensure that all young people have access to high-quality afterschool and summer learning opportunities. Research shows that investing in high-quality afterschool programs addresses many of the challenges that Minnesota and many other states face in helping youth succeed in school, work, and life. Our issue brief, "Afterschool: A Path to College and Career Readiness," highlights promising research, which shows that high-quality afterschool programs:

  • help young people gain skills such as collaboration, problem-solving, and other crucial 21st-century skills that businesses need to succeed in the global economy;
  • spark and sustain students' interest in STEM subjects and careers, and effectively engage youth that are typically underrepresented in STEM fields;
  • narrow the gap in educational outcomes between low-income and high-income youth; and
  • raise young people's educational aspirations and make them more likely to graduate high school and go to college. 

In addition to these promising outcomes, afterschool programs are unique in that they truly engage all sectors in supporting youth. They provide a space for community members—youth and adults—to come together to learn and build relationships. Project Exploration provides a perfect example of how afterschool programs achieve great outcomes for youth and also benefit the whole community. This science mentoring afterschool program connects low-income, middle-school youth in Chicago Public Schools with local STEM professionals for hands-on experiments. It also allows youth to explore their community through field trips to museums, businesses, and universities. The results are amazing: not only are the youth who participate much more likely to graduate high school and pursue post-secondary STEM degrees or careers, but the adult volunteers also report that their lives have been enriched by the program.

We hope that examples like these show the potential of afterschool programs to help youth discover their passion, connect those interests to college and careers, and benefit entire communities. Ideally, the issue brief will help to spark new partnerships with the STEM and business community similar to those of Project Exploration. We are proud to say that we have already begun those partnerships: Ignite Afterschool is currently partnering with the Minnesota STEM Network to plan a joint conference to connect afterschool and STEM education stakeholders throughout the state to improve the quality and availability of STEM learning in afterschool. 

Given the size of the challenge, these seem like small steps. Yet by working together across multiple sectors we can provide learning opportunities that benefit everyone: communities, businesses, and the young people who are looking for opportunities to explore the answer to that question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

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