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Out-of-school learning: Op-ed by Daniel Johnson

November 4, 2013

(c) Leise Jones Photography 2016

Educators in Boston are debating the merits of a longer school day, but their debate need not take place in the dark. Across the city, thousands of students participate every day in innovative after-school programs run by nonprofit organizations, often in partnership with the Boston Public Schools, offering everything from drama to debate and spoken word to urban gardening. The long wait lists for enrolling and objective impact studies attest that these programs can serve as models for extended learning on a citywide scale.

No student wants to tack on a daily dose of drilling and worksheets to the end of their school day. Rather, the most effective nonprofits offer exciting hands-on learning opportunities that do more than replicate hours in the classroom.

At 826 Boston, a Roxbury-based writing center for youth ages 6 to 18, we inspire students to write by offering one-on-one attention and enticing them with real world learning opportunities. This summer, 20 of our middle school playwrights worked side-by-side with staff from the American Repertory Theater to write, produce, and perform an original play at Boston’s historic Strand Theater, all while boosting their literacy skills. Boston — which has been called the “Silicon Valley of Nonprofits”— stands as a hotbed for out-of-school innovation brimming with similarly exciting models to help close the opportunity gap.

Our counterparts at More Than Words coach court-involved students to take control of their lives by learning to manage a bookstore. And cross town at Boston Family Boat Building, students learn the confidence and mastery that comes with building boats. From City Sprouts to Tenacity, the list of nonprofit organizations operating successfully in the out-of-school field stretches on and on.

What do students gain from laying down their video game controllers? The sisters Sumaya, 10, and Samsam, 11, are prime examples. They came to 826 Boston, their backpacks stuffed with homework, shortly after we opened our doors in Egleston Square. Their parents, immigrants from Somalia, fled war and famine, looking for a better life in Boston yet soon realized the challenges of rearing children in a new country when saddled with limited education, basic English skills, and busy work schedules.

For the past five years, Sumaya and Samsam have found a second home at 826 Boston’s after-school tutoring program. Each day after school when their parents are working, Sumaya and Samsam sit side-by-side with adult volunteers in a sunny, book-lined room to finish their homework, practice daily reading, and to tackle hands-on writing projects that result in publication. “It’s amazing what progress my daughters have made since they started attending the 826 Boston after-school program five years ago. They are such eager readers and writers now,” reports Ubah Hussein, the girls’ mother.

Unfortunately, not enough families like the Husseins have access to affordable, effective out-of-school learning opportunities. Reports show that well under half of Boston’s students attend after-school programming, yet the after-school hours from 3 to 6 p.m. prove to be some of the most dangerous for our children and teens. Juvenile crime peaks immediately once the school day ends. On top of that, students who while away long hours playing video games or watching TV often fall behind in school. They also miss the opportunity to meet a life-changing mentor or spark an interest a future career.

With youth unemployment at its highest level since World Ward II, Boston’s population of English Language Learners growing more quickly than ever, the challenge is as pressing as ever. In response, Boston Learns Together, a broad coalition of more than 50 nonprofit organizations, corporations, and cultural institutions has banded together, calling for Boston’s incoming mayor and new superintendent to provide every young person in Boston with opportunities to succeed, largely by expanding out-of-school opportunities.

“To close the opportunity gap, we need a variety of institutions to play a meaningful and measurable role in children’s learning,” states Chris Smith, executive director of Boston After-School and Beyond. The coalition cites the need for organizations across the sector to bring additional resources to bear and calls for BPS to significantly expand its efforts to engage outside partners.

Boston stands at an exciting juncture, and it’s our charge —as educators, policymakers, business executives, and community leaders — to hash out the politics, contracts, common language, and partnerships that can expand after-school opportunities for thousands of additional youth. The answers on how to do so— effectively and powerfully —can be found in plain sight.

Daniel Johnson is executive director of 826 Boston.

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