Last summer I was elated to find a Washington Post headline asking, “Are Summer Camps the Next Frontier in Helping Disadvantaged Students Catch up?”. Educators have long pointed to the ways in which additional learning opportunities before and after school, as well as during the summer, expand horizons for vulnerable students and create needed continuity in their development.
Fast forward a few months however, and the largest federal program supporting expanded learning opportunities (ELO) for kids from low-income communities is now on the chopping block.
The Trump administration has proposed cutting the funding that supports 21st Century Community Learning Centers, claiming there is “no demonstrable evidence” the programs improve students’ performance in school. This is simply not true. In fact, there is a trove of research that shows after-school programs in particular provide at-risk students with the crucial social-emotional and academic skills they need to succeed.
Ready on Day One, a nonprofit organization working to ensure all students receive high-quality early education, recently synthesized 100 studies on ELO programs for at-risk children. The report – commissioned by the Raikes Foundation – shows the significant, and irreplaceable, benefits after-school and summer programs provide to students who, without intervention, may drop out of high school or enter the labor market with insufficient skills to compete in the global economy.
Across the board, the studies confirm what we have seen anecdotally: high-quality ELO programs for young students help close the achievement gap before it widens in elementary school and beyond. And, for high school students, effective ELO programs provide a combination of academic instruction with career or college skills. The skills young people learn in after-school programming have long-lasting positive effects not only for them, but for their families: “to the extent ELO programs change the trajectories of at-risk youth – academically, socially, emotionally, psychologically – they can benefit the families and children they serve throughout their lives,” according to the report.
High quality ELO programs achieve success in several ways. For starters, they provide students with social-emotional skills that correlate with lifelong success; ELO programs are linked to gains in increased social skills, pro-social behavior, and reductions in aggression and misconduct. They can also foster a “growth mindset in the children they serve.” Students with a growth mindset believe academic ability can be improved, and tend to attribute success to hard work, rather than innate skill. ELO programs can play a critical role in shifting students’ mindsets, which is particularly important for children who arrive at school behind their peers academically and are less likely to make connections between school and their long term goals.
A second critical benefit of high-quality ELO programs is that they prepare students for academic success. With a relatively low investment of time and money, ELO programs have been shown to result in a noticeable increase in standardized test scores in the long run, and can also help to sustain the gains students make in early learning throughout their development. As funding for early learning has increased nationally, investments in expanded learning can ensure that the resources we put toward early learning are as effective as possible.
ELO programs, when they are high-quality, have the potential to permanently alter the trajectory of a young person’s life. Especially in their earliest school years, students who fall behind in school tend to stay behind. High-quality ELOs can counteract some of this effect by offering additional support to students who need it most outside of the classroom.
Unfortunately, studies show the “demand for ELO programs substantially outstrips supply,” and the cost of high-quality programs sometimes puts them out of reach for low-income families. Couple that with the possibility of cuts to the federal funding that helps make ELO programs affordable, and many students stand to lose access to programs that play a crucial role in helping them catch up and excel.