Afterschool: a place where ‘mistakes make the mind grow’

A line of students seated at large computer monitors are shown from behind. One child has his arms raised in the air.
At the Elementary Academy of Science and Technology (EAST) summer program in Fairbanks, Alaska, afterschool educators are helping students believe they’re smart. Photo: Alaska Afterschool Network

In a recent interview, musician, singer and songwriter Paul McCartney revealed that, despite creating some of the most memorable melodies of modern times, he never learned to read or write music. For him, he said, music is not “dots on a page. It’s something in my head that goes on.”

“Imagine what we wouldn’t have if McCartney hadn’t been so good at collaborating and working with others,” said Julie Wild-Curry. She is the director of Fairbanks North Star Borough School District’s summer and afterschool programs funded through the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) initiative. The programs give students who — like McCartney — may absorb and comprehend information differently the time and tools to pursue learning in ways that work for them.

 Fairbanks North Star Borough School District’s 21st Century Community Learning Center
Through hands-on, project-based learning, EAST students learn to solve problems through collaboration, perseverance and creativity.
Photo: Alaska Afterschool Network

“If you think about students who struggle, they don’t believe they’re smart,” said Courtney Havrilek, lead coordinator of the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District’s 21st CCLC summer and high school afterschool program sites. “So, we have become very intentional in our language when we’re working with these students. We praise them when they work through a problem, and we compliment mistakes because we believe mistakes make the mind grow.

“We don’t just praise to praise — progress has to be genuine,” she continued. “For us, that starts with project-based learning, which encourages students to use their creativity, to come up with ideas, to be persistent in finding a solution. I’ve never seen kids work so hard or so well at solving a problem. Of course, we couldn’t do the program without exceptional teachers. Their relationships with students are foundational to the program. Luckily, we work with some of the most amazing teachers on the planet.”

Fairbanks North Star Borough School District’s 21st Century Community Learning Center
Focusing on science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) subjects, the EAST summer program is also helping inform and enrich the North Star Borough School district’s afterschool curriculum.
Photo: Alaska Afterschool Network

The “program” Havrilek refers to is the EAST (Elementary Academy of Science and Technology) Summer Program, a four-week camp experience focused on learning science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM). Initiated in 2013, EAST draws participants from afterschool program enrollments at four elementary schools. Students are encouraged to develop skills, such as working cooperatively with others, developing inquiry skills and persisting through challenges. At the end of each day, students reflect on their camp experience through journal writing and discussions.

An evaluation of the EAST 2017 Summer Program indicates progress. Participants, who are selected on the basis of academic need, showed no “summer slide” in learning. Compared to afterschool students who did not attend EAST, they earned higher average scores in reading and showed no decline in math on pre- and post-MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) assessments.

 Fairbanks North Star Borough School District’s 21st Century Community Learning Center
EAST students use an inexpensive “green screen” to insert background footage in a filmmaking class, combining technology and their imaginations to produce a movie scene.
Photo: Alaska Afterschool Network

“One of the coolest things we see coming out of the summer experience is that it builds a kind of power suit for our kids,” said Havrilek. “Our EAST students are positive about their learning and it has infiltrated into the regular school day.”

The EAST experience also has caught the attention of the district’s Extended Learning Program (ELP) for the gifted and talented. An ELP teacher who joined the EAST staff left the program recommending several students for the gifted and talented program.

“The EAST kids were better at STEM and science in general, and now we have several ELP teachers who want to work with us,” said Havrilek.

“We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have 21st CCLC grants that have allowed us to develop our STEAM curriculum and bring teachers aboard,” said Wild-Curry. “We realized that it was something our students needed but received very little exposure to.”

The work accelerated with the creation of the Alaska Afterschool Network, said Wild-Curry, who currently co-chairs the Mott-funded organization’s advisory committee. By that time, the Alaska Department of Education — recognizing that their students ranked far below average among other states in math and science — had begun requiring districts to give more focus to STEM subjects.

A boy stands on a sidewalk preparing to shoot off a small rocket that he has built.
Designing, building and flying a rocket gives students the opportunity to gain practical experience in the STEAM subjects. Photo: Alaska Afterschool Network

“We had the framework for STEAM learning. In afterschool, we could honestly say, ‘We’re there — it works,’ said Havrilek. “It was slow building an army at first, but through the network’s STEM committee, we were able to reach out and support professional development for afterschool educators. We’ve been lucky to have some regular day teachers work with the afterschool program, so we started working to pull them together around STEM.”

“We’re very fortunate that our superintendent considers afterschool an integral piece of the district’s academic and social support for students,” said Wild-Curry.

While teachers are not yet able to replicate the intensity of instruction given to students through the EAST Summer Program, Alaska’s afterschool programs are adapting many of EAST’s instructional techniques and topics, including an emphasis on family outreach and engagement, as well as personalized learning.

“The summer program is our petri dish,” said Havrilek. “We experiment, grow ideas and see what thrives. The summer staff brings it back to the school staff in the after school programs and gives larger trainings throughout the school year.”

Fairbanks North Star Borough School District’s 21st Century Community Learning Center
A practical and useful skill, sewing also enhances students’ concentration and focus as well as spatial skills that are critical to math and engineering.
Photo: Alaska Afterschool Network

The challenge, says Wild-Curry, is building a case for expanding and sustaining the work of the past 19 years.

“We’ve received 21st CCLC grants for many years. We hope to continue the receive this support. We have the external evaluations to show policymakers and elected officials that the program is making a difference. Because of the evaluations, the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District is now providing additional funding support, and we’re hoping to tap some of the state’s new marijuana tax revenue.”

“Exposing our children to high-quality STEAM learning is not only a great development tool for them, but will help our kids be leaders in the future,” said Havrilek.