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Report highlights need, strategies for learning beyond the classroom

By DUANE M. ELLING

Milton Goldberg believes the country’s K-12 educational system is at a critical crossroads.

The ongoing evolution of technology; the growing interaction among people of diverse cultures, experiences and geographies; and the increasing need for a highly skilled workforce mean that young people today face challenges — life, social and academic — never before experienced by U.S. students.

Yet, Goldberg says, many schools continue to operate “as if it were 1956,” with classes ending by mid-afternoon and campuses closed for the summer months. That model, says the former director of the Office of Research in the U.S. Department of Education, no longer meets the nation’s educational needs.

“Learning must become a seamless process that encompasses the entire day and year, helping young men and women develop a genuine range of skills and abilities,” he said. “And we have to take that step now if our country is to succeed in a global society.”

Highlighting such views, as well as related work in several communities, is the focus of “A New Day for Learning,” a report released in January by the Task Force on Time, Learning and Afterschool.

The Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment is rethinking issues of student time and learning.The Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment is rethinking issues of student time and learning.

The task force, formed in 2004 with the support of a $165,000 grant from the Mott Foundation to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, is exploring how the afterschool field can help rethink issues of student time and learning. Members include policymakers, researchers and afterschool practitioners, as well as leaders from the business, education and philanthropic sectors.

Goldberg’s previous leadership on two federal commissions led to earlier reports — “A Nation at Risk” (1983) and “Prisoners of Time” (1994) — on issues of time, learning and education. Now an educational consultant, he also serves on the task force.

Mott support for the current document’s development, publication and distribution included a $150,000 grant in 2005 to the Collaborative Communications Group in Washington, D.C.

Specifically, the report calls for federal, state and local policies to explore and redesign the nation’s learning system, including the structure of the traditional school day and academic year.

Key to creating a new educational system, the report asserts, is for communities to redefine — beyond the acquisition of basic skills — the meaning of student success.

Traditionally, student achievement has been determined largely by classroom grades and scores on standardized tests. But while such measurements have their place, Goldberg says, the processes behind them often don’t allow for the unique ways in which children learn.

Furthermore, many argue that the weight given these measurements should be equally balanced by student outcomes in more qualitative areas, such as participation in the arts; work- and community-based internships; and independent study.

And, the task force says, afterschool programs, by providing quality learning activities outside the traditional classroom and beyond the formal school day or year, can help communities explore and expand these educational opportunities.

One such example is New York’s Peekskill City School District, where educators and residents began working together in 2003 to identify how afterschool programs could best meet the needs of individual students.

“We knew at the start that we needed more than just a place for children to hang out and do their homework,” said Judith Johnson, district superintendent.

“These programs also had to get kids excited about the process of learning, to help them see that education can be interesting and rewarding. And they had to help young people — as well as the rest of us — view student achievement as more than just test scores and report cards.”

Today, Peekskill students are redefining the meaning of educational success.

Many participate in community-based arts programs — music, dance, theater and fine arts — that are directly linked to school coursework.

A partnership between the district and a local community college has opened doors for young people to develop skills in technology and science.

And internships and volunteer placements, coordinated via the schools, are helping them explore careers in health care and other sectors.

Johnson says she believes that students’ accomplishments in these activities also impact their performance in the classroom. Since the programs’ launch, the district has reported increases in the number of students reaching proficiency in math and the language arts, as well as fewer behavioral problems in school.

The potential for such programs to have far-reaching effects on young people should spark similar interest and exploration in communities around the country, says Goldberg.

“Our concept of academic achievement needs to incorporate how children envision success,” he said. “This will help us identify strategies for keeping them engaged in their education and on the road to lifelong learning.”

The task force report suggests that high quality afterschool programs can offer useful tools for reaching those goals. Many such programs integrate a diverse range of learning strategies, which is often cited as being well-suited for helping children acquire and reinforce knowledge.

The Build San Francisco Institute is recognized as having successfully adopted such an approach.

The Architectural Foundation of San Francisco (AFSF) launched the institute in 1992 as a six-week summer program for young people interested in architecture, engineering, construction and design. Today it is a fully accredited, year-round program of the city’s public high school system and serves between 60 and 80 youth annually.

Central to the institute’s success with young men and women, says Alan Sandler, AFSF’s executive director, is a rigorous academic component interwoven with additional learning opportunities. These include internships with local firms, mentoring by leaders from various fields and access to cutting-edge computerized design programs. Participants also perform volunteer work with area civic organizations and engage in independent research and study.

Sandler says these combined school- and community-based experiences help students better understand the link between classroom learning and “real life” application.

“They come to see their studies as not only necessary, but also valuable, something they’ll use in their lives and careers. When they see that connection, the process of learning stops being a chore and takes on a feeling of discovery.”
Alan Sandler, executive director, Architectural Foundation of San Francisco

“They come to see their studies as not only necessary, but also valuable, something they’ll use in their lives and careers,” he said. “When they see that connection, the process of learning stops being a chore and takes on a feeling of discovery.”

That fresh desire for knowledge, coupled with achievements over a range of challenges and a variety of settings, can strengthen the belief among young people of their own potential, as well as their future, says Will Fowler, programs director at AFSF.

“They see themselves in a new light,” he said. “They recognize that they have a place in society, that they can be successful and make a difference."

Creating and sustaining such high quality learning experiences require the cooperation and commitment of many partners.

That’s a lesson that Veronica Peterson, principal of the Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment, knows well.

The academy was launched in 2003 as a collaboration among the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG), Prospect Park Alliance (PPA) and the New York City Department of Education. It combines traditional classroom learning with afterschool field studies at the park and garden. An emphasis on science, nature and the environment is reflected in advanced coursework — applicable for college credit — in chemistry, biology, physics, science research and math.

While the academy is relatively young, its outcomes are the subject of growing interest. More than 95 percent of the school’s students annually pass the New York State Regents exam in biology, compared with a city average of 76 percent.

Peterson says the partnership among the founding institutions has been vital to that success. All are involved in developing and implementing academic curriculums.

“Each of us wants to contribute educational resources that will benefit students and, in turn, the community,” said Sharon Myrie, vice president of education at BBG. “And we recognize this program will succeed only if we share a vision to find the best, most effective ways to help young people enjoy learning, stay in school and strive toward college readiness.”

Those lessons are also helping the academy partners create quality learning opportunities for other children in the community.

“The collaboration has expanded our understanding of students’ needs in — and out of — the classroom,” said Pam Fishman, PPA’s managing director of education. “We’re using that insight to shape and improve programs at our own institutions.”

The task force report notes that engaging and facilitating such relationships, across local, state and federal levels, will be critical to framing a national approach to time and learning. It also spotlights the importance of basing that approach on quality research of how children learn most effectively, as well as facilitating leadership roles and professional development opportunities for those working in the nation’s schools.

Goldberg says “time really is of the essence” for communities to engage in these issues and find meaningful solutions to the country’s educational struggles.

“Our future depends on all young people becoming active learners, developing the skills that will serve them well in school and the outside world,” he said. “And it’s our responsibility to provide them with the high quality time, tools and resources they need.”