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YMCA Pilot Program Found to Boost Skills Students Need to Learn

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The YMCA of the USA is expanding a pilot after-school program designed to close the achievement gap for low-income children, following early signs that students are gaining the skills and motivation they need to do well in school.

Researchers found that after one year, students in the original seven pilot programs improved their social-emotional skills, school behavior, confidence, and school attachment by 53 percent to 70 percent, as shown below in the YMCA's graphic, based on the Devereux Students Strength Assessment (DESSA), which evaluates nonacademic predictors of school success. 

The YMCA of the USA and local YMCAs have been running after-school, weekend, and summer programs for decades, serving hundreds of thousands of children. The goal of the pilot project is to eventually transform as many of those as possible into what the organization calls "signature" programs, by developing evidence-based models for improving students' academic success as well as their social, emotional, and leadership skills.

YMCA SEL Outcomes Graphic.png

Local YMCAs are autonomous, so while there's room for a certain amount of local flexibility, participating Ys and their school partners must agree to meet specific programmatic and structural requirements, said Peter Sari, the Y's after-school specialist for urban education and development. These include:

  • Must be located at a school
  • Maintain a student-to-staff tutoring ratio of no more than 5:1 
  • Employ a full-time site director
  • Pay a credentialed teacher from the school to serve as a part-time academic liaison with the local YMCA
  • Run 2.5 to 3 hours every day that school is in session
  • Provide academic support through tutors and other small group assistance
  • Offer STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs
  • Offer enrichment courses in art, music, physical education, and more
  • Engage students in leadership development and global learning activities at the local, state or national level
  • Provide healthy snacks

"We recognize that not every Y will want to do it, but the goal is that we would grow as many of these as we can, especially targeting low-income communities where kids experience the achievement gap," said Sari.

From an initial group of seven programs in six states with 685 children when it started in 2013, the pilot now has 38 programs in 19 states and expects to top 3,000 children this year. One of the newer sites is at California's La Honda Elementary, a Title I school in the 9,800-student Lompoc Unified School District, near the Vandenberg U.S. Air Force Base.  About 90 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, a proxy for being low-income, and nearly half are English-learners.

Although the school has only been a pilot site for one semester, principal Gail Hines said she and the teachers are beginning to see changes in many of the 90 students in the program. Some who rarely did homework now regularly turn it in; others who had difficulty learning the material now keep up with the work; and one girl who was chronically absent now attends school regularly and shows more confidence in her abilities.

"We think the reason she is doing this is because of the homework support in the after-school program and the encouragement she gets for reading and completing her work," said Hines.

She said this academic intersection between the regular school day and the after-school program is crucial to the program's success.  Hines meets regularly with the local YMCA director and the after-school site manager to ensure that tutoring targets each student's specific needs and is aligned with the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards that students are learning during the day. 

Each pilot school also pays one of its credentialed teachers to work part time as a liaison between the Y instructors and the teachers so one becomes an extension of the other, explained Sari.  If he had his druthers, Sari would like the YMCA instructors to attend school staff meetings and participate in the teacher professional development sessions.

"Our goal is for the parents and the kids to see the school and the YMCA working as a partnership together," he said.

So far, there aren't any official academic outcomes. Because the program is still new, this is the first year the Y is tracking standardized test scores and grades, and organization leaders learned that it's an area where there's not a lot of consistency in the available data. Florida, for example, has a robust student data system and has given the Y's researchers access to standardized test scores, but that hasn't been the case in most other states, explained Rebecca Kelley, the national director of the Y-USA Achievement Gap program.

"We haven't found the Holy Grail of all the data sharing as we try to roll all of this data up at a national level," said Kelley. "We're working through our state alliances around policy changes related to data sharing because it's so important to us."

There have been tangible academic gains reported in another YMCA signature program—there are four of them—called the Power Scholars Academy, an intensive summer-learning program run in conjunction with BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life).  Education Week wrote about it last June, when it expanded, and again in October, after researchers found that students gained an average of 1.2 months of a school year in reading and 1.8 months in math during the six-week program. 

The YMCA of the USA's other two signature programs developed to close the achievement gap are an early-learning readiness program for preschoolers and the Summer Learning Loss Prevention program for low-income children in 1st and 2nd grades.

The four signature programs combined serve about 9,000 students. Next year they are expected to reach 10,000.

Families don't pay for their children to attend the signature programs. Funding comes from a combination of sources, including the YMCA of the USA; local, state, and federal grants; and foundation support. La Honda received a grant from California's After-School Education and Safety Program, known as ASES, to support its pilot.

There are still growing pains to be worked through during the pilot years.  After-school programs are notorious for high staff turnover, a problem the Y hopes to address by offering a variety of professional development sessions in person and online to encourage directors and instructors to view their jobs as steps on a career path.

Another challenge is getting parents to understand the importance of having their children attend every day for the entire time, so they get the most value from the program, rather than seeing it as little more than an after-school babysitting service.


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