A new U.S. Department of Education initiative aims to leverage COVID-relief funding to boost high-quality after-school and summer programs for every student who wants to participate in learning outside of school.
The Engage Every Student Initiative, announced July 14, is the Biden administration’s latest effort to help school districts and state education agencies prioritize billions in American Rescue Plan funding. Through partnerships with education organizations, the department seeks to increase student access to quality out-of-school activities and ultimately support learning recovery.
“Evidence shows that students thrive when schools, communities, philanthropies, and government at every level work together to provide enriching, engaging opportunities for students to learn, grow, and build community beyond the classroom,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said at an event announcing the initiative. “This is especially true for students most affected by the pandemic.”
The COVID-19 pandemic halted growing participation in after-school and summer learning programs, studies show. In the 2020 calendar year, 14 percent of all students participated in an after-school program, which was down from the 18 percent of students who participated in 2014, according to a survey of over 31,000 households conducted by the Afterschool Alliance. If every student who wanted to participate in an after-school program had access to one, that number would be 50 percent, according to the alliance.
Similarly, 22 percent of students participated in a summer learning program in 2020, according to the alliance, and 31 percent of students who didn’t said they would if a program was available to them.
Creating learning opportunities through a community network
As part of its latest initiative, the Education Department is entering into a public-private partnership with five organizations: the Afterschool Alliance, The National Comprehensive Center, a summer learning and enrichment collaborative, the National League of Cities, The National Summer Learning Association, and AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
The five groups will coordinate by working with over 50 allied organizations, including the National Education Association, Boys and Girls Club of America, and the National AfterSchool Association, to improve access to out-of-school programs.
On July 12, the Department launched a website for the initiative that provides resources for districts, schools, community organizations, and state education agencies looking to improve after-school and summer learning opportunities. The goal is to motivate schools, districts, local elected officials, local government agencies, community-based organizations, and state agencies to work together to support learning outside of the classroom.
The Education Department also announced plans for a $3 million to $4 million contract in fiscal 2023 that will lead to the creation of a best practices resource for summer learning and after-school programs. The Institute of Education Statistics released a new online tool that walks districts and states through using federal funds to create summer and after-school programs.
“Make no mistake, during the pandemic, what students missed most was community,” Cardona said.
A push for learning recovery
The new initiative is only the latest in a stream of the administration’s efforts to spur learning recovery in schools and school districts. In early July, the White House announced the National Partnership for Student Success, an effort to bring in 250,000 tutors and mentors to American schools through partnerships with AmeriCorps and 75 education organizations.
The Biden administration also called upon schools and districts to prioritize spending the $122 billion in ARP funds that were sent to schools to support high-quality tutoring, summer learning and enrichment, and after-school programs. On July 12, the Education Department released new funding priorities to support the creation of high-quality community schools.
The strategies, however, are not new. Since 1997, the Education Department has been promoting after-school and summer learning programs through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Initiative, which offers funding for community centers that provide academic opportunities outside of school.
Summer learning and after-school programs also make up nearly a quarter, or $3.7 billion, of the federal funds education agencies have spent on academic recovery, according to a June 7 COVID-19 relief spending report from Georgetown University.
“We saw what the pandemic did to students,” Cardona said. “As a father of two high schoolers, I know the impact it had. It’s on us now. Students are waiting for us to step up and level up.”
Coverage of afterschool learning opportunities is supported in part by a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.