The Future of Learning

Three Black teenaged girls work with electronics attached to a laptop. They all wear masks.
Three students dive into an experiential STEM project at the Boys & Girls Club of Cabarrus County in North Carolina. High-quality afterschool programs bring STEM principles to life, accelerating learning and leadership. Photo: Leah Holden, Generations of Ruth, LLC

This is a watershed moment in American education.

Since the pandemic first emerged in the U.S. in 2020, families, teachers and afterschool educators have been on a full court press to keep young people safe and connected to learning. And many students themselves took up service projects to help their peers and communities cope and recover. Still, the pandemic has taken an enormous toll, not only in terms of test scores and academic outcomes, but also on the well-being of young people.

As we transition from this period, it’s tempting to think that, if schools are fully and continuously open for in-person learning, the challenges will fall away. That’s sadly, but simply, untrue. The pandemic did more than disrupt students’ educational progress. It also exposed and exacerbated longstanding inequities and injustices that must be tackled head on. It made clear, if there was still any question, that the old way of doing things is not good enough.

We need to find reinvention in recovery.

Two middle school aged boys work with a handheld 3D pen while a Lego robot sits in the foreground of the image.
Afterschool programs speed students’ learning and recovery through engaging experiences that have them team up, test, tinker and design solutions.
Photo: Courtesy of the Iowa Afterschool Alliance

Fortunately, new ways forward — a bolder vision for education and equity, more authentic partnerships to achieve results, and more consistent efforts to listen to young people — are afoot, and momentum is growing. Much of this is happening through collaboration with the out-of-school-time field.

I’m proud that so many organizations the Mott Foundation supports are working with state and school district leaders to assure that recovery funds for afterschool and summer learning reach communities with the greatest needs.

At Deep Center in Georgia, for instance, young people have the opportunity to take part in Savannah Stories, a free afterschool literacy, creative writing and leadership program, thanks to a new grant program run by the Georgia Statewide Afterschool Network for the Georgia Department of Education. In all, $27 million in American Rescue Plan funds were awarded to 106 state and local organizations in Georgia to expand and enhance afterschool and summer programming for students impacted most by the pandemic.

Kids of all ages can benefit from the hands-on learning opportunities that afterschool and summer programs provide.
Photo: Michael Penn

Through a bipartisan effort in Vermont, young people spent the summer exploring, learning and growing with support from a grant program run by Vermont Afterschool in partnership with Gov. Phil Scott and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Ninety-three summer programs offered nearly 13,000 young people opportunities to design projects in makerspaces, write graphic novels and much more. And now the Vermont network is leading a statewide effort to build a sustainable, fully funded universal afterschool and summer system so every Vermont youth who wants to participate will have the opportunity.

Afterschool networks in 17 states are expanding youth entrepreneurship education to help students cultivate the entrepreneurial skills and mindsets that prepare them for any college and career path. The Mizzen by Mott app is supporting their efforts by bringing this high-quality content — along with learning experiences from content partners like NASA, PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs, the Pulitzer Center, Foundations, Inc. and Jazz at Lincoln Center — to afterschool programs in all settings.

And the American Association of School Administrators is working with a cohort of school districts and the 50 State Afterschool Network to develop tools and models of practice that support district and community partnerships in using recovery funds to meet students’ needs.

These initiatives show us how to break down silos and bring together diverse partners to change the odds for young people. That’s exactly what’s needed — a broad, bipartisan effort to make the most of federal and state recovery resources and to assure the full range of educational experiences, programs and supports are in place beyond recovery to sustain and build on the gains students realize.

Young people who take part in afterschool programs have additional opportunities to connect with mentors and peers.
Photo: Michael Penn

This is crucial. With students spending 80% of their time outside of the classroom, afterschool and summer programs should be an essential part of every child’s educational experience — not a frill.

But, if we are to assure that these approaches become the national norm, we need to tackle one of the biggest issues facing the field: staffing — from recruiting and retaining staff to assuring fair pay and advancement. A recent survey by the Afterschool Alliance found that nearly 90% of program providers report concerns about staffing shortages and the ability to meet the needs of the children and families they serve. Meanwhile, unmet demand for afterschool programs is at an all-time high. Nearly 25 million more kids would participate in an afterschool program if one were available, affordable and accessible to them.

The good news is that, when state and local education agencies invest relief funding in afterschool and summer learning, programs can attract and retain the staff they need to expand high-quality programming. It’s a sound investment.

Decades of research show both that consistent participation in high-quality afterschool programs accelerates learning — and that those benefits last. When young people have the chance to explore robotics, launch a small business or grow a community garden, they not only gain skills, but also build a stronger sense of belonging. They find mentors, peers and internships, and they hone social and emotional skills to navigate uncertain times. In the face of a growing mental health crisis for kids, these experiences and supports are more crucial than ever.

As the nation struggles to emerge from the pandemic, afterschool programs can help young people reengage with each other and hone 21st century skills, such as creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration.
Photo: Courtesy of YMCA of Honolulu at Herton Branch

With more than $30 billion in federal recovery funds that can be used for comprehensive afterschool and summer programs, including $22 billion in state set-asides for local education agencies, there is an extraordinary chance to help young people recover, heal and accelerate learning. We applaud the U.S. Department of Education’s recognition of the role of afterschool and summer programming in youth recovery and accelerated learning and are pleased to collaborate on its April 27 summit, From Recovery to Thriving: How the American Rescue Plan is Supporting America’s Students.

We have worked alongside the Department of Education since 1998, with grantmaking that includes pilot, expansion and ongoing support for the flagship federal afterschool initiative, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. In all, the Mott Foundation has granted more than $350 million to support afterschool in the U.S., including in our home community of Flint. We believe every effort should be made to enhance access to the innovative learning, academic enrichment and social-emotional supports provided by quality afterschool programs.

It’s encouraging that governors in a growing number of states are proposing new afterschool and summer initiatives to meet kids’ needs. I served as a member of Gov. Whitmer’s Return to School Advisory Council in Michigan, which recognized the critical role of afterschool — not only in helping students recover from learning loss, but also in creating lasting change to serve all kids better.

Kids can’t wait to join the conversation at their afterschool program in Marsing, Idaho. Because students spend 80% of their time outside the classroom, such programs should be accessible to all families.
Photo: Courtesy of the Idaho Out-of-School Network

Past and present education secretaries from both Republican and Democratic administrations underscore the need for change in this critical moment.

In an article for The Wall Street Journal, former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings wrote, “As the nation contemplates its post-pandemic future, our schools and students represent common ground and a shared focus. It is vital that Americans come together at the local, state and national levels to reform and rebuild the education system, to address the lessons of COVID-19 and to set a stronger foundation for the future — the children’s and ours.”

In January, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said, “We must level up our entire system of education, from pre-kindergarten through adult education. It is our moment to finally make education the great equalizer.”

I couldn’t agree more.

A hard-earned lesson from the pandemic is that we are at our best when schools, communities, businesses, families, students, and the private and public sectors — all of us — come together to ensure kids have what they need. The Mott Foundation is grateful to the nonprofit organizations we support that are leading the way, and we implore other organizations across all sectors to join the effort.

The time is now. Our kids deserve no less.