What Happens When Out-of-School Time is All the Time?

Blog post originally posted by The Forum for Youth Investment:  forumfyi.org

The photo below gives a glimpse into how the St. Louis-based Pittman-Johnson household is answering this question. My husband Russ and I have a camera-wide view of my daughter, her husband and their two- and five-year-olds.  We enjoy the extra Skype calls, video clips, and emoji-filled texts.  We delight in the brilliance and stamina of my daughter as she taps into her experience as a pediatrician and founding member of a child development center.  We’re appreciative of the treasure trove of learning resources in their home.  But we are concerned about the mounting exhaustion and stress.  No amount of privilege can remove these from a two child, two doctor family.

Families that considered themselves economically and socially secure are now wondering how to manage securing things they take for granted: schooling, child care, health care, meals. The stress on those for whom these basics were never givens is almost unimaginable.

These are the adults who work multiple jobs and can’t work at home.  Who have neither the resources, the space nor the flexibility to create learning environments in their homes for children and youth who are suddenly not in school.  These families live in neighborhoods whose schools were not prepared to offer online learning.  Where afterschool and community programs operate on shoestring budgets.

I spent time this past week listening to nonprofit colleagues across the country who are sharing stories about how they are helping and learning from their national staff, their affiliates, local partners or schools, and the local staff, youth, and families they serve as they all adjust to this new normal.  The stress on this sector is real, but the responses are incredible as many of these organizations scramble to help families and schools figure out what happens when out-of-school time is all the time.

These staff and organizations justifiably are focused on the present.  The rules for them are not as clear as those for schools. And there are few if any stopgap resources.  In this blog, however, I want to look ahead a bit towards the future.

Summer is coming.  A time when schools usually scale back and families, youth organizations, and employers step up.  A time when the lack of public funding for summer learning exacerbates differences in school, family, and neighborhood resources.  A time when growth in the gap between poor and affluent students’ math and reading is so expected that it has a name – summer learning loss. A time, also, when many students look for jobs and internships and the ones who could benefit the most are least likely to find them.

What will happen this year?  Will mayors and school systems call dibs on summer if the hiatus lasts through the spring? Will families desperate for relief find summer options diminished because of nonprofit staff layoffs and closures? I hope not.  We have an opportunity to plan for and invest in summertime learning activities that reflect true partnerships between families, schools, and community organizations and respond to the very diverse and very real needs our children and youth will have based on their experiences.

We have an opportunity to call out some of the lessons about learning that COVID-19 is making more visible:

  1. The coronavirus reminds us that we are all learners. Children and adults are being asked to absorb new knowledge and to quickly use it to adapt, respond, and contribute in new, authentic ways.  The rapid learning going on in homes across the country goes well beyond learning tips on how to “school” our children. Good or bad, children and adults are jointly processing experiences, testing and building skills, and, hopefully, gaining confidence in their ability to thrive in times of uncertainty.
  2. It reminds us that learning and schooling are different. Learning is a continuous, self-initiated act of social, emotional, and cognitive processing.  Humans’ ability to learn and adapt, not just react, is what helps them thrive, not just survive. Schools help students build these skills and apply them to the mastery of academic content.  But these skills, once mastered, contribute to young people’s ability to make decisions, manage adversity, and have a strong sense of identity in all areas of life.
  3. It reminds us that schools do much more than support academic learning.  Good schools are, first and foremost, good relationship-rich communities.  When schools closed, young people lost connection not just to sequenced academic instruction, but to a complex community comprised of norms, routines, relationships, and responsibilities and services.  Current responses are focused on the first and last of these (online learning and healthy meals).  Substitutes for community are equally important.
  4. It reminds us that learning doesn’t just happen in schools. The phrase anywhere/anytime learning is more than a reference to technology.  It speaks to the enormous number of adults who share responsibility for the education and well-being of our children and teens. It is easy to forget this when the main message we get as parents and taxpayers is that our main contribution to education is to send our kids to school. But students annually spend only 1,000 of their 6,000 waking hours in school, and not all of those hours are in academic classes. Some are spent in cafeterias, libraries, nurse’s offices, playgrounds.  Those fortunate enough to find and afford appropriate accommodations spend almost as much time in preschool, afterschool, and summer learning programs.  One third of 16- to 19-year-olds have jobs. The bulk of the remaining time is spent informally with or near adults who are friends, family, neighborhoods, and informal caregivers; with peers; or alone.

Rapid school closings across the country have called for an “all hands on deck” approach to making sure children and youth have places to be, things to do, and adults to be with during the school day.  But they have also led to a flurry of worksheets, online instruction packets and emailed lesson plans sent out by schools to help caretaking adults – parents, family members, older siblings – fill the void.

Why?  Because fallback thinking to equate education with schooling, schooling with learning, learning with academics, and academics with certified teachers.   In doing so we underestimate schools’ and certified teachers’ roles in children’s education while simultaneously also underestimating the roles of other settings and other competent, caring, committed adults in their lives.  Schools are structured for consistency and scale.  Families and local youth-serving organizations are not. These settings provide different but equally valuable opportunities for engaged learning.

There is no doubt that the schools students return to will be different. School leaders are already thinking about the impacts of stress and social isolation will have on students. But there is no assurance that the adults and organizations that stepped up during the hiatus will be fully incorporated or, frankly, fully available (The child development center that my daughter helped start is running through its reserves in an effort to delay staff layoffs).

Learning happens everywhere.  Educational equity, therefore, can’t stop at the schoolhouse doors.   So let’s see this challenge as an opportunity to blur the lines and bolster the connections between formal and informal; academic and social and emotional; in school and out-of-school; certified teachers and school- and community-based professionals.

Let’s use summer to imagine what a true partnership between schools, families and local organizations might look like.  Let’s get certified teachers and build staff working alongside out of school time professionals, volunteers and families.  Let’s increase the diversity not only of where and when learning activities happen (with a renewed emphasis on outdoors) but of who is involved and what is offered (balancing remediation with youth interests). And, most importantly, let’s adopt universal definitions of learning setting quality that reflect the lessons learned during the hiatus:  relationships matter, safety and belonging matter, attention to individual needs matters, rich, rigorous, relevant content matters, and last but not least, opportunities to act and reflect in ways that strengthen young people’s skills and abilities to be confident, competent advocates for themselves and their communities matter.

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Going Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

Benita Vargas-Brown, Volleyball Coach at Hampstead Hill Academy

Benita Vargas-Brown grew up in one of the poorest parts of Baltimore. She always wanted to make a difference in the city, which is why she became a social worker. That same passion eventually led her to coach and mentor kids in sports. Learn more about Benita’s journey in her own words.
How did you become a Coaching Corps coach?
I didn’t go looking for coaching, it found me. I was really stressed with my job and my final semester in undergrad, so my husband said, “You’re really not helping yourself. Why don’t you leave your job, take the semester off, and figure out what you want to do next?” So, I went to a volunteering fair, and that’s when I got to know Coaching Corps. It was destiny: They were looking for a volleyball coach, and I am qualified to coach volleyball. They said they needed a coach for Hampstead Hill Academy, which is literally just a walk away from our home. So, it was really perfect.
Can you tell us more about the challenges that the kids you coach face at school and at home?
When people hear Baltimore, crime and violence are among the usual challenges that come to mind, so it was extra important to keep the kids off the streets. I’ve had to drive some of the girls home so they don’t have to take the bus when it’s dark.
There have also been some differences among the girls. The school is located at Patterson Park, where on one side you have the million-dollar houses, and on the other you have boarded-up houses. So you wind up having kids coming from privileged and underprivileged situations. This created some interesting dynamics within the team that led to some difficult conversations, but we got through it eventually. That’s one of the benefits of team sports. We got this whole learning experience that wound up really positive at the end.
You mentioned something about “interesting team dynamics.” Can you share more about that?
This is actually one of the things I’m proudest [of] about my team. The girls take it upon themselves to address differences within the group. At one point, it became very clear during our practice that something wasn’t right. We were on this championship drive but there was obvious tension within the team. The girls came to me and gathered as a group to talk things through. The fact that they came up with that strategy on their own is really amazing. For me, it meant that we’re doing something right. After that talk, we got back together as a team. I’m so glad we did it because I know for a fact we wouldn’t have won the championship without sorting things out. Everybody makes mistakes. At the end of the day, what’s important is to be there and have each other’s backs.
What changes or improvements did you see in the girls as a result of being on the team?
The most obvious one would be the sense of maturity. To be in a position where you have a responsibility over something, to be able to practice and play, there are expectations. If you didn’t come to practice on Wednesday, you’re not going to play on Thursday: that’s the consequence for skipping practice.  Eventually it wasn’t the consequence that really drove them. It was their commitment.
All my [Coaching Corps] girls who tried out for high school sports made their teams. There are two highly-rated schools in Baltimore, Baltimore Polytechnic institute and Baltimore City College. To get into those schools is every parent’s and kid’s dream. They have great education and high graduation rates, and they don’t tolerate gang-related violence, which creates a safer environment for the kids. Fifteen of the girls from the team got in and played for Poly while 13 went to City. That makes me really happy.
Wow! If there’s one way to describe success and promoting equity, that would be it. With all these experiences, what advice would you give aspiring coaches and mentors for kids?
Show up. You have to be there. You have to be consistent. You can’t cancel on these kids. Over the course of my time, if I know something’s going to come up in my schedule, I plan for an assistant coach to take over. Kids know if you care. You can figure out everything else, there are Youtube videos for that. You just have to show up because these kids expect you to be there for them.
Afterschool Partners


Boys & Girls Club of Central Florida

City of Orlando Athletics

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JT Dorsey Foundation

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San Diego

Gompers Preparatory Academy

High Tech High

La Maestra Foundation – Center for Youth Advancement at Generations

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Pro Kids | The First Tee of San Diego

Soccer Kids America

YMCA of San Diego County

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A Place Called Home


After School All Stars: Los Angeles

Boys & Girls Club of Venice

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City of Huntington Park Department of Parks

East Los Angeles Rising Youth Club

Equitas Academy

Girls on the Run of Los Angeles

Girls Play Los Angeles

ICES Education


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Long Beach Parks, Recreation and Marine

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Major League Baseball Youth Academy

Norwalk La Mirada Unified

P.F. Bresee Foundation

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Street Soccer USA: Los Angeles

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Variety Boys & Girls Club

Watts Rams

YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles

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Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta: Samuel L. Jones Boys & Girls Club
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All Dorchester Sports and Leadership

Boston Centers for Youth & Families


Cambridge Community Center

East End House

Oak Square YMCA

Sole Train: Boston Runs Together