Afterschool and summer innovation help make up for lost learning time

With assistance from a teen girl, a young girl puts together a felt and watercolor tree kit while several other children watch.
Providing fun and enriching programs in small-group settings is one of the ways Bulloch County is using funds from Georgia's Building Opportunities in Out-of-School Time grants program to help children recover from pandemic-related learning loss. Photo: Bulloch County Recreation and Parks

With safety glasses firmly in place and spiral-bound notebooks in hand, a group of fourth graders gathers around their instructor for a demonstration of how to engineer a catapult. Assessing payloads and the projectile motion of a squirrel plushie, the students excitedly jot down notes and hypothesize, test and rejigger their designs. Launching a stuffed toy into a grassy field may not sound serious, but it’s precisely this approach — blending camp-style programs with in-school learning — that makes Tulsa Public Schools’ summer learning model work.

In southern Nevada, throngs of robotics teams wheel, scoot and lift their bots across pits the size of basketball courts, checking out the competition and running last-minute routines. Participants have this hands-on opportunity to test the math, science and engineering skills they’ve learned in the classroom thanks to a combined in-school and afterschool program led by FIRST Nevada.

In Georgia, the state’s Department of Education has teamed up with the Georgia Statewide Afterschool Network, a Mott Foundation grantee, to open spots in afterschool, summer and year-round programs that help young people access meals, academic enrichment, and wellness services and supports. In 2021 alone, through the Building Opportunities in Out-of-School Time grants program, Georgia awarded $27 million to support 104 grantees that serve an estimated 160,000 youth annually. Almost all BOOST grantees (98%) serve students who receive free and reduced lunch, and more than half serve young people who are in foster care, who are homeless, or who are English language learners.

A line of students add items, including COVID-19 test kits, from a row of tables to plastic bags.
With BOOST funding, the Tommy Nobis Center is providing services to underserved communities during the summer break, including educational field trips, guest speakers, and opportunities to gain hands-on experience in real work environments. Photo: Tommy Nobis Center

These are just a handful of the ways that states and local school districts are leveraging pandemic recovery funds to expand afterschool and summer programs that help young people make up for learning loss, recover and grow. More than 100 examples are captured in a new map created by the Afterschool Alliance and the National League of Cities, two Mott Foundation grantees that have joined a national public-private partnership with the U.S. Department of Education to help states, schools and community-based organizations make the most of federal recovery funds, as well as state and local support.

A teen boy fills out paperwork while a young woman watches.
BOOST funding supports programs to expand out-of-school-time learning, helping students recover from the pandemic. Photo: Tommy Nobis Center

Recent National Assessment of Educational Progress tests show that 9-year-olds’ math and reading scores have dropped dramatically since the start of the pandemic. NAEP reports these are among the largest declines they’ve seen in a single assessment cycle in 50 years.

Along with the map of examples in almost every state, includes data on the amount of funds available to each state and school district, as well as resources for implementing quality programs that support students’ well-being and academic growth throughout and beyond recovery from the pandemic.

“Pandemic recovery funds present an incredible opportunity to support our young people, and their well-being and academic growth, through afterschool and summer programs,” said Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance. “These programs — whether they give young people the freedom to explore arts, music, robotics, writing or coding — can be a game-changer. With the families of 25 million children waiting for a spot in an afterschool program, and pandemic funding available to most school districts, our hope is that these maps, models and resources inspire more schools and local program providers to team up and ensure a bright future ahead for our kids.”

From Anchorage to Wilmington, state, school district and community collaboration is pointing the way.

In Georgia, BOOST grants are helping programs that have been serving families since the pandemic began to continue providing crucial supports through the recovery. In metro Atlanta, an out-of-school time program used funding to expand family outreach and purchase a minivan to help with student transportation, which increased program attendance by 50%. Other BOOST grantees are expanding services to children with disabilities and children in foster care.

Ten smiling people gather around a classroom table and give a thumbs up sign.
With BOOST funding, the Tommy Nobis Center is providing services to underserved communities during the summer break, including educational field trips, guest speakers, and opportunities to gain hands-on experience in real work environments. Photo: Tommy Nobis Center

“During the pandemic, a lot of organizations fundamentally changed the way they provided services — to fill gaps as schools were closed and to be a lifeline to families — yet they had to figure out how to manage,” said Katie Landes, who directs GSAN. “By the time ESSER III came out, many afterschool programs needed support to meet demand. Working in partnership with the Georgia Department of Education is allowing us to help make sure recovery funds reach organizations like these that, in turn, reach underserved families and youth.”

This year, GSAN is exploring partnerships with the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, the Georgia Farm Bureau, the Georgia Foundation for Agriculture, the Georgia Municipal Association, the University of Georgia and others to increase afterschool and summer learning accessibility in some of the state’s most rural areas, as well as with youth involved in state systems. The growing ecosystem of partners is looking into the creation of mobile learning centers, specialized out-of-school time environments for justice-involved youth, and free summer camps for children who are in foster care.

“To reach children across the state, BOOST grants in year one brought critical resources to community-based programs and statewide networks, such as YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs, Communities in Schools, and the Georgia Recreation and Park Association,” said GSAN Associate Director Jed Dews. “These far-reaching programs were able to do more than ever before, and now, in year two, the partners are poised to reduce barriers to high-quality afterschool and summer learning for the young people who need it most.”

A young boy sits at a table building a small robotic vehicle.
A Bulloch County student launches into a STEM lesson made possible through a BOOST grant that’s expanding high-quality afterschool and summer learning programs. Photo: Bulloch County Recreation and Parks

In Oklahoma, thanks to Tulsa Public Schools and ARP funding, the Ready.Set.Summer program provided 10,000 children with access to gardening, robotics and field trips, as well as academic enrichment and other supports. Ready.Set.Summer’s STEM days are bringing the lessons children learn in the classroom to life.

During a garden center field trip, children immerse themselves in the outdoor classroom, discovering how aquaponics systems yield nutrient-rich water to irrigate and fertilize plants without harmful chemicals. Moving on toward a row of raised garden beds, an elementary school student pauses and kneels to cup her hands around an unfurling, thriving kale plant. Its leaves stretch high above her head toward the open summer sky.

Evaluations from last year’s program show that participants regained grade-level skills both in reading and math — skills that better prepare them for the year ahead. That’s why so many states and afterschool programs are working to develop and sustain programs like these and implement the recovery efforts that young people will need.