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Better Access Crucial to Success of Summer and After-School Programs

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CHICAGO—Unlike in the movie "Field of Dreams," just building after-school and summer programs offer no mystical guarantee that students "will come."  

Access is a huge issue, not just transportation to the programs although that is a challenge, but also the types of programs offered, if students perceive them as having value, and whether students and their parents even know what's available in their communities.

"I often say you can't choose what you don't know," commented Lee Shumow, an educational psychology professor at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. 

Shumow was one of three experts on a panel focused on extended-learning time research at the recent Education Writers Association national seminar in Chicago.  

Shumow's research has examined the influence of out-of-school time activities on children and teens. She said the "single most important thing" that program providers want to know is how students decide where to go.

"We really don't know a lot about what it is that brings children and youth in. In our ongoing study, we're asking both youth and parents that question: Why did you select this? How did you hear about it?" said Shumow. 

For the past three years, the Chicago-based Digital Youth Network (DYN) has been gathering that information from its more than 190 partner organizations using what are known as digital badges. The free software, developed by the Mozilla Foundation—whose parent company created the Firefox browser—lets DYN track the number, types, locations, price, and success of the city's out-of-school programs.

Panelist Nichole Pinkard, founder of DYN and an associate professor in computing and digital media at DePaul University, said digital badges serve multiple purposes.

They provide parents and kids with a one-stop online shop of programs offered, what they cost and where they're located.  Beyond that, digital badges can track what each group offers and what students should learn if they participate.  

Through a partnership with Chicago Public Schools, every student in the district is in the DYN roster.  

"We can see in a particular neighborhood, in a particular zip code who's participating and who's not," said Pinkard. 

With that data, Pinkard added, DYN is trying to understand the factors that are limiting accessibility to help them become "more strategic about where we offer programs, who offers programs, and how we're targeting kids to participate."  

For example, if a program were only offered in downtown Chicago, would it attract students from the South Side and West Side who have to take a bus and transfer to a train? 

"Am I going to feel safe to send my 6th grade or 7th grade daughter?" questioned Pinkard. "It could be the greatest program in the world, but I work. I can't get them there." 

The panelists agreed that the programs must offer enrichment activities as well as academics and a safe environment to be successful. In order to motivate students to attend voluntary programs, there have to be opportunities to explore their interests and broaden their exposure to different possibilities.

"Just painting with a broad brush here, the programs that offer breadth and balance tend to be the best for children and youth," said Shumow.  

In the best situations, enrichment and academics overlap, added Pinkard. Even though learning digital media and creating games are considered enrichment, those are also the skills required for many careers.

Community schools are specifically designed to create a connection between schools and local organizations to help students succeed by providing a variety of resources and services to address social, financial, and health concerns endemic to low-income neighborhoods.

Partnerships are crucial to this model, said panelist Martin Blank, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership, which houses the Coalition for Community Schools.

As Education Week reported earlier this month, community schools reflect the growing recognition that students living in poverty need more resources, and that requires a formal collaboration of schools, government, social services agencies, religious groups, and community organizations.

"What we want to see is schools and communities and partners and families thinking through what they need to do to make their kids be successful," said Blank.

Developing these partnerships on a wider scale will take more money, but it's a good investment and the right thing to do, added Lee.

She said the research shows that in places with strong community and school initiatives, students have fewer drug and alcohol problems, do better in math and reading, and are more likely to graduate from high school.

The message that policy makers need to hear is that "all of these things matter economically," said Lee. "I think we need to talk that language a little bit more."

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