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Trust and Collaboration Required for Expanded-Learning Success, Says Report

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The most successful expanded-learning programs require shared values, cooperation, and mutual respect among schools, school districts, and the organizations running the programs, according to a new study by the Partnership for Children and Youth.

In its report "Time Well Spent", the Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit identifies characteristics of the best expanded-learning programs, based on site visits and interviews with dozens of experts, school administrators, and after-school program coordinators.

As schools implement the more-rigorous Common Core State Standards, it's even more important for them to collaborate with extended-day and summer programs, especially to work with low-income and minority students, and English-learners who are already behind academically as a result of the opportunity gap.

"For students who struggle to achieve these goals, there are not enough hours in the day, at least not in the traditional six-hour school day," writes Jessica Gunderson, the  policy director of the partnership and the author of the report. 

Most of the available research on successful expanded-learning programs focuses on structural and operational issues, but those weren't the most important traits mentioned during interviews, Gunderson told Education Week.

Although each of the eight districts and programs profiled in the report varies by size, structure, demographics, and curriculum, they had shared visions of student success, direct and ongoing communications, and an agreed-upon distribution of roles and responsibilities. 

"When we asked them, 'what do you think is the most important role of a school district or of a system in building this collaboration?' It was more about values," said Gunderson. "Things, such as trust and relationships and a shared sense of student success were first and foremost, were fundamental."

It's not uncommon to have some mistrust or territorial conflicts between administrators and teachers in a school and staff in the after-school programs, but the programs that have the best outcomes for students also have the strongest connections with the schools they serve. Sometimes it's small actions that can help make a difference.

As an example, Gunderson described one of the model programs she visited where "when you walked into the teachers' lounge there was a board with the pictures and names of after-school staff.  Everyone knew one another.  The lines were much more blurred from a staffing perspective." 

That kind of cooperation requires buy-in from school and district leaders in order to create a culture of partnership and trust with expanded-learning programs, instead of treating them as vendors selling a product to the schools. 

"Where you have a very strong after-school manager or coordinator, you're much more likely to have these coordinated programs," said Gunderson.

At North Elementary School in California's Tracy Unified School District, one of the model programs included in the report, Principal Fred Medina recalled the challenge he faced to keep the after-school staff included on the internal email list to they would be in the loop.  Every summer the technology department would remove their names and every fall Medina had to work to get them restored.

"Having the site leads get the district emails is a very important strategy for coordinating with the school day," explained Medina, who also pushed to get the after-school staff access to student information so they could provide specific help to students who needed it. 

About a decade ago, Oakland Unified School District, a large, urban, district serving a majority of low-income students of color in the San Francisco Bay area, launched a plan to turn around failing schools by committing to the community schools movement.  

Life Academy, one of the flagship schools in this venture, and Alternatives in Action (AIA), which runs the school's expanded-learning and extended-day programs, have created a seamlessly intertwined curriculum.   AIA staff participate in professional development programs with Life Academy teachers and the AIA site director serves on the school's leadership team.

The report is intended as a guide a for school and district leaders to draw from in order to create stronger partnerships with their expanded-learning programs without having to reinvent the wheel. Partnership for Children and Youth has scheduled a webinar on October 29, to offer more details and answer questions on the recommendations. 

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