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New Extracurricular Program Helps Low-Income Youths

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This post is by Kathleen Cushman, whose interviews with students and teachers inform her many books on learning in the adolescent years. In September 2015, Harvard Education Press will publish Belonging and Becoming: The Power of Social and Emotional Learning in High Schools, co-authored by Cushman and her WKCD colleague Barbara Cervone.

I used to feel uneasy in museums, as if trespassing on someone else's territory. Growing up transient in a military family, we kids had little sense of belonging where we landed. We were the outsiders--whatever the local culture, it seemed off-limits.

These days, I hear a similar alienation in conversations with youth in New York City's lowest-income neighborhoods. Though they live within easy reach of the city's glorious cultural resources, they don't enjoy easy access.

Without the time, money, and support to open those doors in the larger community, they miss out on much of the excitement, engagement, and sense of belonging that matter so much to adolescent learning.


Recent social science research by Kaisa Snellman, Robert Putnam, and their colleagues has amply documented this inequity in the "informal education" of youth. The enrichment that most engages children outside of school (think video production, archaeology, game design, theater arts, team sports) comes at a price to families. And those at higher socio-economic levels spend at least six times more on such "extras" than their low-income counterparts do.

As low-income students enter grade 6--a critical inflection point in identity formation--most have accrued 6,000 fewer hours of learning than affluent peers, through formal and informal education. That sharply limits their chances to exercise the ambition, curiosity, and civic participation that closely correlates with social mobility.

But that could soon change, through a startup called CityPathways, the brainchild of savvy New York educator Sanda Balaban and her colleagues.

Known as cPaths (for "see paths"), its bold yet realistic design starts with "City Saturdays" for participants, ideally combined with midweek afterschool sessions. There, trained college-age mentors partner with underserved seventh graders to identify their strengths and interests. After coming to know each other well, older and younger students set out together in posses, "trail-blazing" at selected sites where they can take those interests deeper.


These forays don't resemble your average field trip, force-feeding a crowd of captive kids. Instead, cPaths expeditions are grounded in long-term relationships: broadening young people's sights for their futures, growing their skills in inspiring settings over time, and helping them identify next steps on their paths to success.

In Balaban's words, CityPathways sets up a highly personalized "game board of opportunities." Youth strategize their moves from point to point, starting in early adolescence and continuing through high school and college. Along the way, they find their footing in a city -- and a larger world -- full of possibilities for the future.

Many players stand to gain from cPaths' integrative design:

  • The exciting new idNYC program could extend cards to middle schoolers, providing them free membership to 33 participating museums and institutions.
  • The city's cultural and civic institutions could draw younger and more diverse audiences and participants.
  • College-age students could acquire valuable knowledge about potential career paths as they guide their younger charges through exploratory activities and next steps.
  • Younger students could rate and recommend organizations and institutions throughout the city for the benefit of peers (Yelp-style).
  • Families could grow more aware of opportunities across age groups and neighborhoods.
  • Teachers could engage young learners more deeply, building on their out-of-school experiences.
  • CityPathways could scale readily to other communities around the world.

"We have the technology, the municipal and institutional desire, and the know-how to create meaningful out-of-school learning opportunities for the youth who need them most," Balaban, a finalist for the inaugural Aspen Ideas Award, told an audience at that festival earlier this month. "Now we must connect the dots, strengthen the connective tissue, and forge the developmental pathways that lead to their future success."

Partners in deeper learning should be lining up to play their part.


(Photos by Nick Whalen)














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