Engaging Parents in Children’s Learning: Tough, Perhaps. But Key at Any Age

By the time they are three years old, children from low-income families have heard 30 million fewer words than children of wealthier professionals, according to groundbreaking research conducted by early childhood scholars Betty Hart and Todd Risley in the 1990s. Learning specialist Susan Landry attributes this in part to a statement she often hears from young moms: “I didn’t know I was supposed to talk to my baby until they could say words and talk to me.”

Across the country, new initiatives are under way to address such misconceptions and teach parents how important they are in developing their child’s vocabulary, the New York Times reported in an article on Tuesday. One such initiative, “Too Small to Fail”—supported by the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies—hopes to reach Latino parents through advertisements on the Spanish-language TV network Univision. But many of these initiatives, like Providence Talks, in Rhode Island, diverge from traditional public service-like campaigns and bring their message directly into the homes of low-income parents through home visits and wearable recording devices called “Lenas,” which track the words spoken around a child.

Attention to the role of parents in early childhood development raises an important point for education and expanded learning in general: home environment and parental involvement are crucial to a child’s learning at any age. In the expanded learning and after-school field, programs that do not involve families in their children’s learning are missing out on an important opportunity. An evidence review from ExpandED Schools by TASC highlights three key variables that affect parents’ involvement in their children’s school and learning: parental self-efficacy (knowledge base and self-confidence); aspirations and expectations; and perception of school receptivity. Read the review for ideas on how best to engage parents in bringing learning home.

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Research Round-Up: Exciting Outcomes

The latest research from Deborah Lowe Vandell and her colleagues at UC Irvine suggests that consistent participation in high-quality after-school programming by elementary school students (K-5) vastly narrows the achievement gap between students from low-income and high-income families by the fifth grade (see infographic). Vandell’s study did not describe the content of the afterschool programs in her study, but several other recent studies have shown that similar outcomes may result from a variety of program models:

Research round-up Feb. 2014 image

  • A YMCA study published earlier this year found that students who participated actively in their High School Youth Initiative program—a summer and after-school program focused on technology skills, leadership, and homework help—had higher grades and test scores in math and language arts, as well as improved overall GPAs and higher attendance as they progressed in school. Participating youth came from low-income families and diverse cultural backgrounds.
  • A study of youth development in minority boys who participated in the Sport Hartford Boys (SHB) program indicated that involvement in the program positively influenced the participants emotionally and socially, as gauged by their development in the “6 C’s”— competence, character, caring, confidence, connection, and contribution. The “6 C’s” are a set of characteristics identified by developmental scientists as indicators of positive youth development and future success.
  • A case-study series of four California schools found that implementing “student-centered” practices, such as connecting learning to real-world experiences and assigning student-directed research projects, dramatically improved the college readiness of low-income and minority students as compared to their peers in traditional schools in the same districts and across the state.

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New Videos Show How Afterschool Fills Hours of Opportunity

Kids today spend 80 percent of their waking hours outside of school. In our field, we think of that time as “hours of opportunity”—hours in which kids can potentially be engaged in enrichment, team-building activities, meaningful adult mentorships, and more.

Yet for many kids, the hours outside of school are a missed opportunity. Only 15 percent of school-age children participate in after-school programs, with children from higher-income families participating at twice the rate of children in poverty.

Afterschool: Hours of OpportunityTwo new videos from The Wallace Foundation show how high-quality after-school programs can help fill gaps in opportunity. Featuring leaders of after-school programs and school districts around the country, Afterschool: Hours of Opportunity illustrates how programs help kids forge relationships with peers and educators, improve their behavior and academic performance, and motivate them to stay connected to school—a crucial ingredient for students who feel disengaged. These programs aren’t restricted to a specific time and place; they can happen before school, over the summer, or as part of an expanded learning day.

What can interested communities do to ensure they meet high standards of quality and offer access to the greatest number of students? A second video, Better Together: Boosting Afterschool by Building Citywide Systems, explains the key elements of building a citywide after-school system—a coordinated effort among service providers, public agencies, funders, and schools that helps stretch dollars, serve more youth, and improve quality. School and after-school data systems that can “talk” to one another, for example, or a mayor who champions the cause, can go a long way toward ensuring that programs meet the needs of a community and reach more students.

You can read about one mayor’s efforts to build an out-of-school time system in Madison, WI, in an earlier post.

Summer Learning in Boston: Making it Fun, Making it Count

We’ve been hearing a lot this summer about retooled programs that are making learning fun for kids while combating the summer slide. Across the country, in cities from Jacksonville, Fla., to Oakland, CA, public school districts are partnering with nonprofit organizations to offer their students rich programming that combines rigorous academics with enrichment such as arts, outdoor exploration, and vocational experiences.

Last week CBASS had the chance to visit one such program. Thompson Island, located in Boston’s harbor and managed by the Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center, is home to a variety of outdoor adventure and experiential learning programs for youth—including one participant in Boston’s Summer Learning Project. A collaborative initiative between Boston Public Schools, the Boston Opportunity Agenda, and Boston After School and Beyond, the Summer Learning Project draws on the resources of schools and community organizations to offer k-12 students opportunities to increase their academic achievement as well as build valuable skills for school and career success.

Boston Summer Learning Project students and their counselors exploring Thompson Island.

Boston Summer Learning Project students and their counselors exploring Thompson Island.

What does summer learning look like in Boston? Well, for rising fourth-graders on Thompson Island, it includes a ferry ride, team building, and hands-on science learning. The day begins at 9 am, when school buses drop students off at the dock to be greeted by Boston Public Schools teachers and Outward Bound facilitators and ferried over to the island. As at all Summer Learning Project sites, students spend mornings buckling down on math and reading in classrooms, but in the afternoons they’re outdoors, working to balance as a group on a teeter-totter in the woods, or exploring the island with rangers from the National Park Service. The latter is particularly popular. With a diverse environment that includes bluffs, intertidal zones, and salt marshes, “every little ecosystem becomes a learning place,” says Arthur Pearson, president and CEO of Thompson Island Outward Bound.

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Summer Learning Day—A Celebration and a Challenge

Guest post by Bob Seidel

This Friday, June 21, is Summer Learning Day.  It’s a day to celebrate summer learning successes—and to challenge all of us to make high-quality summer learning opportunities a reality for all who need them.

Why is this so important?  If we don’t exercise our brains for an entire summer, we lose much of what we’ve learned.  Research shows that, without stimulating summer activities, students tend to lose about two months of grade-level equivalency in math.  Low-income students also tend to lose more than two months in reading achievement.  The cumulative effects of summer learning loss mean that as much as two-thirds of the ninth-grade achievement gap in reading is attributable to differences in summer learning opportunities in the elementary years.

Summertime is also important for young people’s health and nutrition.  Without access to organized programs providing opportunities for exercise, young people’s tendency toward obesity becomes aggravated.  And among those who receive federally-subsidized meals during the school year, only one in seven receives those meals during the summer.

The good news is that there are effective solutions out there.  Research shows that high-quality summer learning programs not only stem summer learning loss, they help students make positive gains. A recently published report from California’s Partnership for Children and Youth, Summer Matters:  How Summer Learning Strengthens Students’ Success, showed that during a six-week program in the summer of 2012, students improved their vocabulary by nearly 1.5 grade levels [pdf, 2.9 MB].

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