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Transforming Challenges Into Opportunities: The Role of Expanded Learning Time in Advancing Educational Equity

Learning in the Time of COVID-19 blog series: Expanded Learning Time by Sarah Klevan

This post is part of LPI's Learning in the Time of COVID-19 blog series, which explores evidence-based and equity-focused strategies and investments to address the current crisis and build long-term systems capacity.

School buildings were closed, but prom was not canceled in Baltimore City, thanks to the efforts of students at Wide Angle Youth Media, a Baltimore-based expanded learning time (ELT) program. With support from staffer Destiny Brown, a rising sophomore at NYU and an apprentice with Wide Angle, students from throughout the city organized a virtual version of the end-of-year tradition as part of their spring project with the media arts organization.

“Class of 2020! I am so glad that you made it to the first VIP 2020 [Virtual Iconic Prom 2020], a celebration of you!” beamed Brown, as she welcomed more than 200 juniors and seniors to the celebration of their accomplishments. The event included live music and dancing, prom king and queen announcements, and a welcome address from Baltimore’s mayor. Planning and coordinating the celebration was just one of the many ways in which Wide Angle has engaged students and supported their out-of-school learning during the pandemic.

The overwhelming damage wrought by COVID-19—economic collapse, widespread unemployment, profound educational disparities, and more than 357,000 lives lost—tends to eclipse the more mundane losses that so many communities have suffered. For many high school seniors, COVID-19 forced the cancelation of the milestone events that mark their transition from adolescence to young adulthood. That is what motivated Brown to work with her students to plan VIP 2020. “Not only was all in-person schooling abruptly pulled to a halt, but so were the events that make senior year so special, including senior portraits, graduation, and, of course, prom,” explained Brown, a Wide Angle graduate. “The reason I am doing everything in my power to still give students a memorable year is simply because it’s what I would’ve wanted someone to do for me.”

Wide Angle, whose mission is to amplify youth voices through media arts education, offers a variety of programming for Baltimore youth and young adults ages 10 through 24. The 20-year-old organization partners with local schools, libraries, and other community organizations to provide media arts programming during and after school for elementary, middle, and high school students and offers two evening courses for high school students to develop skills in writing, production, graphic design, marketing, and public speaking. Participants in the evening program attend classes twice a week in which they produce original media campaigns and video productions. They are paid hourly as they learn critical skills and support area businesses and nonprofits. In all, 400 young people participate in Wide Angle programs each year, 80% of whom are students attending Title 1 schools.

Federal Funds Support Expanded Learning

States and districts can use federal funds to support expanded learning opportunities, including funds from the most recent federal relief package signed into law on December 27. This law provides an additional $54.3 billion in k-12 funding for schools based on their proportions of students from low-income families. COVID relief funds can be used for planning and implementing summer learning and after school programs with a focus on providing access to these programs to students who are the furthest from opportunity. These funds can also be used for any program that receives funding under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which includes programs that support expanded learning opportunities.

The Power of Expanded Learning Time

ELT initiatives like Wide Angle are more than an add-on program, field trip, or enrichment opportunity. High-quality initiatives support students’ development of critical skills, as well as their social-emotional health and well-being. For maximum benefit, ELT should be taught by well-prepared educators who utilize student-centered pedagogy and curriculum. For example, Wide Angle provides a stable group of trained and supported educators who lead students in project-based activities focused on themes of their own choosing. Past project themes have included Black Lives Matter and intersectional identity. Many Wide Angle students work directly with clients to produce design and marketing campaigns, which allow them to authentically connect their learning to real-world applications.

For ELT programming to effectively meet students’ needs, it must complement the learning that takes place during the typical school day in ways that support essential curricular standards and the learning activities developed to achieve those standards. In an ideal world, ELT is seamlessly woven into the regular school day. Wide Angle’s Community Voices program partners directly with elementary, middle, and high schools to enhance curriculum through the incorporation of media and production projects. For example, through a partnership between Wide Angle and Patterson High School, journalism students produced documentary-style videos about their school on such topics as exploring the experiences of Patterson’s refugee students and examining limited funding for the school’s athletic fields.

As is the case for the traditional school day, students learn best during ELT when they are part of a warm, caring environment in which they feel a sense of belonging. Recognizing this, professional development for Wide Angle’s teachers includes topics such as trauma-informed care, so that staff are better able to understand and respond to a wide range of circumstances that their students may be facing. Wide Angle also maintains small teacher–student ratios (8:1), which allow teachers and students to develop close relationships.

As is the case for the traditional school day, students learn best during ELT when they are part of a warm, caring environment in which they feel a sense of belonging.

Transition to Remote Learning

When COVID-19 hit and in-person classes were canceled, Wide Angle staff worked quickly to adapt their programs to a distance learning setting. The transition was particularly important for high school students in Wide Angle’s evening programs, who are paid for their participation—an essential source of income for many of the students. During a short break in programming, Wide Angle staff acquired funding to purchase additional hardware and to develop lending protocols so that students could borrow needed equipment for use at home. With this equipment, students in the advanced “studio” track were well positioned to continue their learning remotely; they had advanced media and production skills and were familiar with online communication tools, such as Slack and Trello. Students in the beginner/intermediate track, for their part, chose from among three options for virtual classes: critical media discussion, photography, or virtual prom planning.

In addition to a pivot to remote instruction, Wide Angle staff also made weekly contact with their students to assess their wellness during COVID-19 and to connect them to needed services. Prior to COVID-19, Wide Angle maintained a small emergency fund for students and alumni. Through additional fundraising and resource reallocation, the nonprofit expanded its emergency fund to support students and staff experiencing food or housing insecurity during the pandemic.

Closing Gaps, Advancing Opportunity

The traditional 6-hour school day and 180-day school year have never been enough to offset the inequitable opportunities for learning among students of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Wide Angle Youth Media illustrates the critical role of programs and partnerships that provide expanded learning time for students.

Decades of research have demonstrated that disparities in out-of-school learning opportunities translate into disparities in academic achievement. By 6th grade, students from middle- and upper-income families typically spend upwards of 6,000 more hours on educational activities than students from low-income families. Research estimates that the cumulative summer learning gap accounts for more than half the difference in 9th-grade achievement between students from low-income families and their more affluent peers, which in turn contributes to the likelihood of students entering college-track high school programs and meeting college-going requirements.

The COVID-19 pandemic and resultant school closures have intensified the need for out-of-school partners like Wide Angle. While the impact of school closures has been widely felt, it has disproportionately harmed students from low-income families and students of color, in part due to lack of technology and access to digital platforms for learning. The academic benefits, together with their community-building and service components (like afternoon and evening meals), make ELT programs more important than ever in the lives of underserved students.

Out-of-school time has become an essential tool for mitigating inequitable educational outcomes for students. COVID-19 presents both enormous challenges and enormous opportunities, a sentiment that Destiny Brown captured well in her message to VIP 2020 attendees: “Here’s to you, Class of 2020, the class of overcomers and overachievers, the class full of phoenixes poised to soar above the ashes. We salute you and are in awe of your perseverance and persistence.”

Expanded learning time is one of 10 policy priorities discussed in Restarting and Reinventing School: Learning in the Time of COVID and Beyond. The interactive report includes rich examples of evidence-based strategies and practices and offers resources and recommendations for policymakers.