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Better, Broader Learning: California Education Policymakers Prioritize Bolder Expanded Learning Opportunities

Educating the Whole Child blog series: Expanding Learning Opportunities

This post is part of LPI's Educating the Whole Child blog series, which explores research, policy, and practices to support students' healthy growth and development.

Two recent surveys (see, “Parents Call for Bold and Broad Action to Ensure More and Better Learning Time”) indicate that parents have interest in a broader conception of education to meet their children’s learning and development needs. Even more than academic activities, they are prioritizing social and emotional learning and health; outdoor physical activity; and programs such as art, music, and sports for the return to school this summer and fall. They want the new funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to be used to enact “bold change,” not for business as usual. By that they mean more engaging and personalized learning opportunities (such as career-focused offerings and tutoring), a more explicit whole child focus, access to enriching out-of-school activities, and caring supports and exciting learning within the school day.

Parents Call for Bold and Broad Action to Ensure More and Better Learning Time

Two recent parent surveys emphasize the importance of acknowledging that learning happens in homes, schools, and communities in complementary ways. All of these sites for learning are important, and all can continue to be strengthened and integrated to support children and youth.

A National Survey of Parents (Beacon Research)

Conducted with Shaw and Company Research and funded by the Walton Family Foundation, this study gauged how parents would like to see the federal stimulus funding for education used.

Out-of-School-Time Programs This Summer | Paving the Way for Children to Find Passion, Purpose & Voice (Learning Heroes)

Conducted with Edge Research and funded by The Wallace Foundation, this study sought to understand how parents, teachers, and out-of-school-time (OST) providers perceive the value and assess the quality of OST programs in supporting children’s social, emotional, and academic development. It also explored how these different stakeholders are thinking about summer in the context of COVID-19.

Parents’ views are supported by research on how children learn and develop, which confirms that accelerating systems change toward equitable, rigorous, and transformative education will require a focus on:

  • centering relationships;
  • creating a culture of affirmation and belonging;
  • building on students’ experiences and interests to teach content in ways that engage their knowledge and that of their families;
  • supporting social and emotional learning;
  • engaging in inquiry-based approaches to learning, along with physical activity, mindfulness, and the expressive arts—all of which support brain activity and stronger learning and achievement; and
  • nurturing and connecting educators in all of the settings children encounter—schools, youth-serving organizations, before- and after-school programs, and family settings.

Although the focus has often been exclusively on schools because of the strong default assumption that equates learning with classrooms and teachers, in California there have been ongoing efforts to attend to the broader learning and development ecosystem that children, youth, and families use year-round.

New Investments Build on Strong California System

California has the largest, most robust system of publicly funded expanded learning programs in the country, currently serving nearly 1 million students every day after school. Nine out of 10 students served are students of color, one third are English learners, and at least 1 in 4 of California’s students experiencing homelessness participate in these programs.

The state-funded After School Education and Safety (ASES) program and federally funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers consistently demonstrate their positive impact on student engagement, school attendance, social and emotional development, and academic skills. Both programs support tutoring, enrichment, social and emotional supports, physical activity, and more. They are commonly staffed by a combination of district personnel and employees of community-based organizations, who often live in the local community and are a huge asset in building trusting relationships with students and families.

Yet even with California’s large investment and ongoing commitment, there has long been unmet demand for access to these programs. That is about to change, however, with historic new investments coming from both the state and federal governments. On top of the $4.6 billion California allocated for expanded learning to support COVID-19 learning recovery, mental health needs, and social and emotional needs, state leaders have just allocated billions more in ongoing funds to dramatically expand access to after-school and summer programs for students from low-income families and other underserved students. Through the combination of state funds and the significant federal recovery dollars through ARPA, the state plans to build a new model for education—one that ensures that all students have access to the full range of learning and support experiences every parent or caregiver wants for their child.

Through the combination of state funds and the significant federal recovery dollars through ARPA, the state plans to build a new model for education—one that ensures that all students have access to the full range of learning and support experiences every parent or caregiver wants for their child.

Before the governor’s recent ambitious budget proposals, only $38 million out of the nearly $800 million in California’s expanded learning funds were earmarked for summer, a long-standing gap for students whose families cannot afford camps and other programs that keep them learning and engaged over the summer. Now, with a new investment of $1.75 billion in 2021–22, which will grow to $5 billion over the next 4 years, the state expects to provide no-cost before- and after-school opportunities and summer programs for all students in transitional kindergarten through grade 6 in districts with the greatest concentrations of children from low-income families, English learners, students experiencing homelessness, and students in the foster care system.

This investment promises to substantially reduce the opportunity and achievement gaps between children from low-income families and their more affluent peers. Research by Johns Hopkins University professors found that two thirds of the difference in achievement between 9th-graders from high- and low-income families could be attributed to the cumulative effects of “summer learning loss” caused by the differential opportunities children typically have during those months. Furthermore, studies by the RAND Corporation show that summer learning programs can help make up the gap and that the most effective programs are those that combine enrichment activities, such as sports, adventures, and expressive arts, with academic learning. These more expansive programs outperformed those that were only focused on academics.

The RAND findings suggest that the old, remedial approach to summer school should be replaced by a summer learning approach that offers plenty of enrichment and fun alongside skill building and learning supports. Similarly, during the school year, we should ensure that after-school programs not only focus on tutoring and supervision but also engage students through creative, project-based learning and enrichment that builds skills, expands horizons, and leads to a wide range of positive student outcomes. These programs can be supported by the efforts of both school districts and community-based organizations who partner to raise children well.

Reimagining Systems and Practices

At the highest levels, California’s education leaders are pulling out all the stops to ensure that these funds are used as a springboard to blur the lines and bolster the coordination between schools and community organizations. In May, California First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, and State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond sponsored a webinar urging educators to use the new funds to plan a “summer of joy” using all of the community’s resources. They were joined by representatives of community organizations, as well as leaders of the state library and parks systems, who have organized multiple ways these resources can be used this summer and beyond. This engagement with community-based partners will help ensure programs are well-rounded, can connect well with families, and offer all the supports and opportunities young people need. The hope is that these historic investments will result in the bold changes to reimagine our education system in ways that families want and children need.

The investments in summer learning are part of a much larger set of investments designed to both address the devastating impact of the pandemic and to build a more equitable and opportunity-rich educational system. A centerpiece of these new investments is an unprecedented $3 billion to expand community schools in California, with a focus on schools and districts serving low-income communities. Community schools are an evidence-based strategy organized around four key pillars: integrated student supports that offer health, mental health, social services, and other community supports; expanded and enriched learning time and opportunities offered by schools and community partners; family and community engagement in instruction and school outreach; and collaborative leadership and practices among all the members of the school community. Embedded across all of these pillars is a deep attention to building trusting and supportive relationships with families and community partners that support students’ academic success and health and well-being. With this investment comes an opportunity for districts—in partnership with students, families, and educators—to launch a restorative restart to school by reimagining systems, structures, and practices to support, engage, and empower students at every stage of their educational journeys.

The convergence of disruption, innovation, empowerment, and funding offers an unprecedented opportunity for a reset. We have a chance to consider what we can do differently to better serve students, families, and communities, particularly those marginalized by inequitable systems even before the pandemic. We should not return to the old normal. We should listen to students and families calling for bold change; build on how children really learn rather than work against it; and accelerate progress and partnership toward equitable, rigorous, and transformative education by building forward together.