I grew up in a rural community in Wisconsin, worked extensively in the rural South, and regularly visit schools throughout this nation. I chair the Afterschool Alliance for this great country and have seen first-hand the successes and challenges of expanding learning opportunities in rural America.
The bottom line of a new CAP report, Additional Learning Opportunities in Rural Communities: Needs, Successes, and Challenges, is very simple and very important. There is a great and pressing need for afterschool and expanded learning programs in rural areas across America. We are severely shortchanging our rural children and youth and their communities and families by limiting their learning time when we should be giving them the tools to grow and prosper. I want to thank the Center for American Progress for commissioning this study.
Many rural children come to school every day with gaps in experiences, opportunities, and connections. We talk all the time about the achievement gap—which is very important. But to overcome the achievement gap requires giving our young people more experiences, more opportunities, and more connections.
Well-designed afterschool, expanded day, summer learning, and extended day initiatives must work on all those gaps if our young people are going to catch up, keep up, and get ahead in this international marketplace of commerce and ideas. An academic “component” is a common characteristic of a successful program, but not the only component. Just doing more of the same in afterschool or extended day programs is not going to give our young people the skills and connections to get ahead.
Just remember when you were a young person, or think of your children, nephews and nieces, or grandchildren. What excited and engaged you then (or them now) to learn more and work harder? Was it developing skills and knowledge in areas of interest to you; participating in the arts, drama, or sports; or exploration of careers and college options? Was it positive connections to peers, teachers, and staff, or using technology to communicate with young people in another country? Or was it being engaged in science projects or serving the community or school?
These are the kinds of activities that are provided through additional learning opportunities and are staffed by a mix of motivated teachers, youth workers, and volunteers. It shouldn’t be surprising therefore that recent studies indicate successful programs often include skill-building in areas of interest, enrichment, and extra help in subjects where students are falling behind.
These successful programs produce multiple benefits for children and youth, including improved attendance, grades, and test scores and motivating students to learn. They also have a measurable impact on behavior and social skills.
Future afterschool, expanded learning, and extended learning programs should help engage young people to address pressing contemporary education issues. They should be deployed to increase the low high school graduation and college-going rates in many communities. They should help expand science, engineering, and technology learning, and develop 21st-century skills. They should be an asset to cultivate the dispositions and knowledge for the creative and international economies.
As a grandparent and educator, I am disappointed that many of the solutions proposed for current education issues keep our children stuck in an 8 a.m.-to-3 p.m. learning day and don’t provide summer learning opportunities. We need a new type of learning day as the C.S. Mott Foundation has described in its recent work. And we need to engage critical community resources and people in helping close those experience, opportunity, connection, and achievement gaps.
CAP’s study shares examples of quality expanded learning programs in rural and smaller towns that are helping children succeed academically and socially. There are others, but unfortunately, they are too few and they are too vulnerable. Funding and sustainability are the biggest challenges to rural programs.
Rural programs face some challenges that are different from those faced by their allies in the cities, including a smaller local tax base, fewer nonprofit organizations and corporations to look to for financial support, and high transportation costs. Rural programs will not be able to expand to the extent they are desperately needed without additional state and federal financial support.
An essential source of funding is the federal 21st Century Community Learning Center program. It is authorized to be funded at $2.5 billion, but is only funded by Congress and the president at $1.1 billion. Closing this $1.4 billion funding gap would enable 10,000 to 14,000 more school-community partnerships across America to provide more than a million more young people with expanded learning opportunities, many of them in rural communities.
State education formulas should be adjusted or state grant programs created to provide financial support to expand afterschool, extended, and summer learning for struggling schools and children. Transportation should be provided and funded, too.
It is long past time that our education financing system breaks our imprisonment to the 8 a.m.-to-3 p.m. learning day and 175-to-180-day learning year. In summary, here are a few critical take-aways:
- Quality afterschool and expanded day programs are making an enormous difference in rural America, but they are few and far between.
- Funding and sustainability are the biggest challenges for programs, which is why we need to aggressively encourage additional federal and state support for them.
- Content and delivery are critical because afterschool, summer, and extended day programs cannot be more of the same; the best programs build upon school and community partnerships and add exciting enrichment activities that complement, expand, and build on the academics.
- When designing modern afterschool, expanded day, summer, and extended day programs, we need to address contemporary education and youth development issues, such as increasing dramatically the high school graduation and post-secondary going rates.
My former boss and good friend, Dick Riley, the U.S. Secretary of Education from 1993 to 2001, puts it like this: “Our kids could do so much more after school to expand their horizons and develop a host of skills to prepare them for these rapidly changing times.” We should have the will and courage to do just that.