Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Big Day for the Little People

As our last blog post centered on the need to include older youth and young adults in accounts of young peoples’ and families’ well-being, it seems only fair that this post should cover the youngins’. Last week, was a big week for younger youth in DC, at least politically speaking. Council Chairman Kwame Brown held the first of two roundtables about the state of education for the middle-grades on Wednesday and turnout was high. Though this roundtable only included public witnesses, everyone from concerned parents, to members of the State Board of Education and education advocates turned out to give their testimony to Chairman Brown and various other Council Members who presided over the hearing through the course of the day.

Chairman Brown recently remarked in a weekly newsletter that the middle grades are an “exciting and critical developmental time for students. It's important that we challenge them with a rigorous curriculum, engage them in project-based learning, and expose them to the opportunities that await them in college and careers. And we need to identify funding to support promising, innovative programs that are already demonstrating success with middle grades students.” So in honor of Chairman Brown’s suggestions, we thought we might give an example (or two) of areas ripe for funding support that are indeed demonstrating success with middle grades students.

1) Structured Summer Learning Opportunities

The educational losses middle-school students sustain during the summer months can be severe and the situation is especially dire for the low-income students who make up a majority of DCPS. Statistically, economically disadvantaged students start school with lower achievement scores than their peers, but during the school year they progress at about the same rate as other students. However, this progress can be quickly negated during the summer months. While research shows that most students across the socio-economic spectrum lose approximately 2 months of grade-level equivalency in math over the summer months, low-income students also lose 2 months of reading equivalency while their middle-class peers tend to make slight gains (National Summer Learning Association). All children and youth are susceptible to “summer slide,” but for already low-performing students, the lack of Summer School options makes sustained educational achievement nearly impossible. Lots of people at last week’s roundtable pointed to low scores on DC CAS and schools’ failure to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) as evidence of failing middle schools in the District. How do we expect to improve on these measures if the summer is literally erasing the knowledge our children and youth are gaining during the school year?

Summer School provides structure and continued skill development to those students in need of academic recovery in addition to the overall prevention of summer learning loss. In 2010, DCPS enrolled roughly 5,000 elementary and middle school students in Summer School. However, this past summer, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students had only 175 slots available. Investing in a robust education system that accounts for the educational attainment of all children and youth is the only way that we can attain truly improved outcomes in our public school system. To accomplish this, DC must fund learning opportunities that keep doors open during the summer months. We are literally undoing the gains are public school students are making during the school year by not providing them with structured learning opportunities over the summer months. By funding a more robust system of summer education opportunities we CAN counter this trend.

However, this system cannot end simply at summer school and must also include structured, outcomes driven enrichment activities like those funded through the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation. If we’re going to expect greatness from our students we cannot allow them to backslide, but we must also keep them engaged and interested in the learning process- stimulated by new experiences that give them a vision for their future. Which brings us to opportunity number 2:

2) After-school Opportunities

Engaging and creative enrichment activities that compliment extended learning opportunities shouldn’t be limited to the summer months. And there is no shortage of research on the effectiveness of after-school programs. Across the country high-performing programs have been linked to a number of outcomes including improved self-confidence, better civic engagement, better school attendance, improved academic achievement and decreased delinquency. The hours between when school ends and parents leave work are critical. (Need citation). For communities like DC, where many parents are single heads of household, living barely at- or far below the poverty level- access to high quality afterschool programming that is affordable and keeps children and youth engaged is a necessity.

Despite the need for such programs, DC has systematically divested in these programs over the past few years. Funding to community organizations providing this type of programming has dropped by over 60% in the last two years alone. In addition, at each budget season, the DCPS Office of Out of School Time which also provides critical extended learning opportunities face significant budget reductions and substantial cuts that reduce the number of children they can serve.

Much like summertime learning, high quality afterschool programs provide the additional hours of learning that is absolutely essential in fighting the achievement gap between low-income and middle/high-income students. Considering the number of times the word equity got tossed around at last week’s roundtable, re-funding programs like summer school and agencies like CYITC and the DCPS Office of OST seem like no brainers when it comes to achieving parity within our school system.

We applaud Chairman Brown for taking the lead in examining how DC can better support middle school aged students, and we hope he embraces many of the recommendations made at the roundtable and above and champions them strongly- both highlighting the need, and matching that need with funding and council support- in the coming years.

And if you don't believe us...just read this fantastic testimony prepared by the Executive Director of DCAYA MemberOrg Higher Achievement. If we can't convince you surely Lynsey can!