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Student Achievement Opinion

4 Ways to Make Summer and After-School Learning Effective

High-quality expanded learning programs can reverse students’ disengagement and fill in missing skills
By Richard W. Riley & Terry K. Peterson — July 12, 2023 5 min read
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In Boston this summer, 250 organizations are collaborating to provide 25,000 young people with up to five weeks of summer learning across the city. The school district, city government, and nonprofits are pulling together under the guidance of Boston Afterschool and Beyond. They are using the power of engaging learning opportunities, fun, outdoor activities, science experiments, and arts and music. Similar efforts will continue into after-school programs in the district in 2023-24. They are addressing the most significant challenge in American education today: How can students jump-start their learning after three difficult years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The research is clear: Well-designed summer and after-school experiences enrich and expand education offered in schools.

  • A National Institutes of Health study that followed almost 1,000 students for two decades found that children who attended after-school programs had positive outcomes that lasted into adulthood and built on early-education effects.
  • Afterschool Alliance research concluded that high-quality after-school opportunities promote gains in math and reading, grades, and school attendance among regularly attending students.
  • A National Academy of Sciences report on summer enrichment programs found that they supported cognitive, academic, social, and physical development. NAS also found that low-income children and children of color are much less likely to have access to these programs.

The RAND Corp. has identified characteristics of successful summer learning programs. The programs should consist of full days for at least three weeks in the summer and offer a friendly environment, strong engagement, and positive interactions between adults and students. Each day should include three hours of well-designed language arts and math instruction and many informal enrichment opportunities.

Based on the research and our own experiences learning from summer and after-school educators from across America each of the past 12 years at our Riley Institute, here are four recommendations for accelerating student learning in the summers and in after-school programs in 2023-24 and beyond.

The broader your network, the more enriching the programs will be.

1. Focus on the five principles for summer and after-school learning. Researcher Deborah Lowe Vandell, a former dean of education at the University of California, Irvine, has identified five principles as essential for effective after-school and summer programs. In such programs, learning is active, collaborative, and meaningful to students. It also supports mastery and expands students’ horizons, such as by giving them workplace experience or allowing them to see how other people live.

2. Convene and build a schoolwide, neighborhood, communitywide or districtwide collaborative for expanded learning in summers and after school. Make the network broad and include arts and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) groups; community and youth groups; libraries, recreation centers, and parks; health professionals; and faculty and students from colleges. The broader your network, the more enriching the programs will be. Building this local consortium would be an excellent use of remaining federal COVID-relief funds or funding from the United Way or a community foundation.

3. Rethink how to deploy educators in summer and after school to make student experiences engaging and rewarding and to avoid teacher burnout. Encourage teachers with particular skills, hobbies, and passions to share them in after-school or summer programs, minimizing teacher exhaustion that can come from a focus on only reteaching. Hire the best teachers to provide targeted small-group instruction for just one hour at a time interspersed with a multiplicity of other activities. Use master teachers to coach after-school or summer staff and couple them with university practicum courses so these teachers can become school administrators.

4. Organize local site teams to design and deliver engaging and enriching content by bringing together the talents of teachers and community- and youth-development professionals. These teams should develop lessons and experiences that capture the best of teaching core subjects like reading, math, and science while incorporating hands-on learning, experiences relevant to students’ lives, and arts and physical activities. Another good use of remaining COVID-relief funds is to develop a cadre of local and statewide summer and after-school leaders from both the school and the summer and after-school sectors who will plan this content, apply the principles of expanded learning, and bring together funding from different sources to ensure the programs survive.

See Also

Chloe Lalone, a University of Iowa student from Storm Lake, works with Yamir Banks, a soon-to-be 2nd grader, while student teaching in a classroom on June 23, 2021, at Storm Lake Middle School. The Storm Lake Community School District and Buena Vista University collaborated to have the Storm Lake university's education students student teach during a summer school program designed to help students make up for any educational time lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The student teaching opportunity was also opened up to Storm Lake school alumni who are studying education at other colleges.
Chloe Lalone, a University of Iowa student, works with Yamir Banks, a soon-to-be 2nd grader, as part of a summer school summer school program designed to help students make up for educational time lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Summer school programs nationwide typically experience high rates of absenteeism.
Tim Hynds/Sioux City Journal via AP

Building such programs may seem challenging, but there are many successful examples.

  • In some of the highest-poverty and lowest-achieving schools in Maryland, Arts for Learning Maryland, working with Baltimore schools, has made a learning mecca through integrating arts with reading, math, science, and technology. Students in this six-week, full-day program make more academic gains than students in other district programs, have the highest attendance, and learn a set of foundational skills like teamwork, persistence, and presentation.
  • The high school career center in Baldwin County, Ala., is building a pipeline for teachers, early education, and after-school programs through both a “teacher cadet” program and three courses in a dual-enrollment program.
  • Louisville, Ky., schools are paying a premium to employ some of their most talented teachers to work in existing community-based summer and after-school programs to add needed academic and enrichment content in engaging ways.
  • After-school programs that go by the name Coast to Coast Camps in the K-8 Oxnard, Calif., district focus on helping children do their best in school. They offer weekly themes, small-group academic tutoring, physical fitness activities, and field trips created specifically for C2C Camps.
  • The Engaging Creative Minds program across rural South Carolina is guiding low-wealth school districts to help educators leverage community expertise from professionals in the arts, sciences, technology and engineering and from business organizations to expand learning during the summer, after school, and during the school day.

These are only a few of the school-community partnerships addressing fallout from the pandemic with top-notch summer and after-school programs. Educators in schools alone cannot address the academic crisis that the pandemic has wrought. They need to capitalize on artists, librarians, mentors, camp counselors, museum curators, coaches, college and high school students, and the many other adults who can play a role in accelerating children’s academic progress.

For the 2023-24 year and beyond, it is urgent to implement comprehensive after-school and summer-enrichment opportunities in a serious way—not as an afterthought. We must reverse the disengagement that affected so many students and reckon with missed learning opportunities. Expanded learning can play a huge role in that endeavor.

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