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New Law Encourages Year-Round Expanded Learning in California

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California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill this week to increase the number of year-round expanded learning programs in the state and strengthen the quality of after-school and summer programs.

SB 1221, introduced by Democratic state Sen. Loni Hancock, reprioritizes the state's $120 million share of funds under the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers program to give more weight to current after-school programs that want to expand and offer summer programs.

That new focus "is a reflection of the data around summer learning loss and the importance of kids being engaged and active all year round," said Katie Brackenridge, who oversees expanded learning initiatives for the Oakland-based Partnership for Children and Youth, which co-sponsored the bill with the state department of education.

Additionally, Brackenridge said the bill would help direct more money into summer programs, because there's a lack of funding available for them in the state.

In 2002, California voters approved a ballot measure that created the After School Education and Safety Program (ASES) to provide academic support and enrichment activities in a safe environment through school and community collaborations. But that money, about $550 million, can't go toward summer programs unless every eligible school in the state has a before- or after-school program. Together, ASES and 21st Century Community Learning Centers provide funding for nearly 4,200 programs.

The new law doesn't establish mandatory standards; instead it requires that programs show that they're actively working to improve based on Quality Standards for Expanded Learning in California, which were released by the state department of education on the same day that the governor signed the bill.

Brackenridge said research shows that it's better to create voluntary standards for program administrators to work toward than to threaten to withdraw funding from programs that don't meet a specific benchmark.

That doesn't mean that the programs are exempt from any oversight, explained Michael Funk, the director of the state department of education's after-school division. They will still have to conduct annual quality assessments using data—such as surveys, interviews or focus groups—to show how well they're serving students and develop action plans as part of a continuous cycle of improvement.

"The compliance part is did you do a quality improvement reflective process, not how well did you score on standard number four," said Funk.

As an after-school provider for a couple of decades, Funk said he knows that when programs take time to gather data, reflect on it, and "find one or two places where they can make the most improvement, that's the biggest driver for improving the quality of programs for kids"

Up to now, Funk said the only regulations for extended-learning programs focused on attendance and procedural policies.

"There wasn't any document that said this is what quality looks like, this is what a learning environment looks like if it's a high quality program, this is what distinguishes some type of child care that's just keeping kids busy from something that really is a critical part of the education system," said Funk.

The new law also removes sections in the state education code that required expanded-learning programs to report scores on standardized tests, homework completion, behavioral improvement, and skill building. Instead, those results will be reported for research purposes only and included in biennial reports to the state legislature to see how well students in the programs are doing in school compared to students that don't participate.

The new standards along with a guide containing examples of how to meet them, were developed as part of the state's three-year strategic plan to develop a common mission, vision, and goals for expanded learning.

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