Ron Ottinger is the Executive Director of the STEM Next Opportunity Fund.
Summer is around the corner after another challenging school year for our hardworking students and teachers. Of course, those of us in education know learning does not stop over the summer. Far from it. When students have access to worthwhile opportunities for learning and growth, summer can be one of the most valuable times for young people to engage in meaningful hands-on learning. Over and over, research has demonstrated the importance of after-school and summer programs in advancing students’ academic aspirations and sparking the joy of learning, particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
This summer is especially critical for the millions of young people who have experienced “learning loss” in the last two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Numerous studies have shown that shifts in how students learn have affected learning outcomes. Teachers continue to support students’ social and emotional health and other crises that have affected learning. These challenges are very complex and call for complex solutions.
Fortunately, school communities are getting creative with how to use federal aid from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) to support students’ growth effectively. According to a new analysis from FutureEd, summer learning is the number one solution districts are embracing to address learning recovery. According to the same study, nearly two-thirds of districts plan to use ARP funds for summer and after-school programs. These programs include after-school and summer learning opportunities within the public system and community organizations.
That’s the good news. The reality, however, is that school systems can’t do it all alone. The available funding is not enough to meet the demand. According to the America After 3PM report, three children must wait to get into an after-school program for each child admitted. In addition, many complex operational necessities, like transportation and program staffing, too often go under-resourced, ultimately preventing students living in “resource deserts” from accessing these all-important programs. The effort becomes a bust, and students, parents and teachers pay the price. This has been the case, especially for youth from underserved communities and students with disabilities.
That is why I believe philanthropies, corporations and other education investors must step up to prioritize summer learning. As the executive director of a venture philanthropy fund, I believe this is an opportunity that needs to be pushed as far and wide as possible. I’ve found support is needed, particularly for out-of-school opportunities in STEM, where Black, Latino/a and female students have disproportionately lacked access to opportunities—even before the pandemic—and where we’re bound to see learning gaps grow even wider in years to come if learning losses aren’t reversed.
What should this support look like? Here are a few areas worth investors’ focus on.
Communication across learning environments can be challenging, especially across different organizations. Technical assistance can provide opportunities for classroom teachers and out-of-school educators to create channels of communication that uplift each child’s new bright spots and learning needs. Technical assistance can be particularly helpful to ensure the most effective strategies, backed by research, are incorporated into the learning continuum.
Investors should consider focusing on technical assistance to help partnerships between districts and programs. This way, districts and after-school/summer providers can work together to focus on an aligned approach to kids’ needs.
Family engagement is another important area investors can advance for programs, schools and families. Family engagement supports students, especially our most marginalized. By creating partnerships between schools and after-school and summer programs, staff can develop a united strategy and leverage their resources and partnerships to get families excited about their child’s progress.
Social And Emotional Learning (SEL)
Investors can also focus on supporting social and emotional learning (SEL). This can come in many forms, such as awarding grants to communities for in-school, out-of-school and summer programs aimed at developing students’ social and emotional skills.
Overall, I believe we must all do our part to ensure ARP funding gets to the providers who can partner with districts and school systems and help networks advocate for state policies and continued funding beyond these one-time funds. The ROI is clear: The U.S. Department of Education has highlighted how collaborative funding enhances academic and emotional supports in districts across the country.
School systems and investors alike still have time to make smart investments in summer learning to help our students fulfill their potential during this challenging time. Students, teachers and after-school educators deserve nothing less. These summer months can do wonders for students if young people are able to access quality learning opportunities that don’t just help make up for lost time but enhance their knowledge and skills in exciting ways they can’t even imagine. How will you do your part?