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Beyond the Bell: Out-of-School Learning Programs Can Help Kids Catch Up and Excel

Afterschool and summer learning programs emerge as ways to bridge the achievement gap and expand educational opportunities.

By Autumn Rivera  |  February 12, 2024

States continue to address the evolving needs of students and families, placing a specific emphasis on providing engaging learning experiences beyond the regular school day. Afterschool and summer learning programs have emerged as vital components to bridge the achievement gap and expand access to educational opportunities.

Among the key trends of the 2022-23 legislative period were increased funding for afterschool initiatives, a heightened focus on learning recovery, collaboration with community-based organizations, efforts to measure program effectiveness, and support for flexible learning models. 

The creation of afterschool networks in all 50 states has played a pivotal role in fostering collaboration among stakeholders involved in out-of-school time, or OST, initiatives. Afterschool networks often serve as intermediaries connecting schools, community organizations and policymakers to enhance the overall quality of afterschool programs. Notably, in states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut, these networks have proven instrumental during the distribution of Emergency and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, grants. Beyond serving as conduits for funding, the networks review grant proposals, ensure alignment with educational objectives and provide crucial technical assistance to grantees. This collaborative approach aligns with broader efforts to strengthen educational opportunities for students beyond regular school hours. 

Comprehensive afterschool programs not only foster academic growth but also promote social, emotional and physical well-being. By providing a structured environment, the programs enable students to explore diverse interests, receive additional academic support and participate in enriching experiences that contribute to their overall learning and skill development. Below is an overview of the legislative directions that states have taken to enhance and expand afterschool and summer learning opportunities for students nationwide. 

Expanded Funding

Lawmakers have allocated supplementary resources to schools and community organizations, with an emphasis on providing high-quality afterschool opportunities, particularly for underserved populations. 

Arkansas enacted legislation earmarking $25 million for statewide out-of-school programs. This encompasses afterschool and summer initiatives strategically designed to boost student achievement, career readiness and literacy skills, all aimed at concurrently reducing dropout rates. 

Similarly, a Rhode Island bill, currently under consideration, would fund comprehensive afterschool, school vacation, summer learning and workforce development programs tailored for students in specific grades. The bill would mandate an annual report to the General Assembly and the governor that includes a detailed account of the program’s status and progress. An allocation of $4,000,000 is earmarked to support these initiatives, catering to K-12 students. 

A pending Pennsylvania bill would amend the Public School Code of 1949 to create a grant program dedicating $30 million per year to local afterschool and summer learning programs throughout the state.  

A Washington bill, if enacted, would create an Office of Youth Development in the state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families to coordinate with state agencies to reduce barriers for youth in accessing programs, convening youth providers in the state, maintaining a statewide program locator, and administering grants for youth development programs. The new grant program would fund programs focused on learning acceleration, social-emotional learning, mentorship, connection to non-school-based resources, supporting postsecondary access and career pathways, and arts and cultural programming. The bill is based on recommendations from the state’s Youth Development Workgroup

Focus on Learning Recovery 

With a growing awareness of pandemic-related achievement gaps, legislatures may prioritize legislation that uses afterschool and summer programs to help with learning recovery. This could include funding for tutoring, literacy, homework help and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs to help students catch up and excel academically. Many states are likely to encourage greater collaboration between schools and community-based organizations to expand the reach and impact of afterschool and summer programs. 

California passed legislation in 2022 to expand the statewide program known as COSMO. The program, also known as University of California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science, is an intensive, four-week pre-college program for high school students who have demonstrated an aptitude for academic and professional careers in STEM subjects.

In 2022, Idaho directed ESSER funds to:

  • The Office of the State Board of Education, to replace the current school data system, create a dyslexia handbook and support summer learning programs. 
  • The STEM Action Center, to provide summer learning programs. 
  • The Commission for Libraries, to facilitate summer library reading programs. 

In 2022, Louisiana enacted legislation targeting early literacy. The policy is effective for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 school years, aligning with the state’s time frame for using pandemic relief funds. Third and fourth grade students scoring below grade level on reading in an end-of-year screener are now entitled to receive 30 additional hours of concentrated literacy instruction during the summer. The instructors are specifically trained in the science of reading. 

Commissions, Task Forces, Advisory Groups 

Establishing metrics can help states evaluate the effectiveness of afterschool and summer programs. This could include requirements for comprehensive data collection, the formation of commissions, task forces and advisory groups, along with reporting and program evaluation. 

In the 2022-23 legislative session, New Jersey considered, but did not pass, a bill to establish out-of-school time advisory commissions in both houses of the Legislature. If enacted, the commissions’ mandate would have included assessing the state of out-of-school time programs, adopting statewide standards for program design and implementation, examining existing funding for OST programs, and making recommendations to enhance the accountability and quality of before-school, afterschool and summer programs. 

In Washington, D.C., a pending measure would require the Office of Out of School Time Grants and Youth Outcomes, in coordination with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, to develop standards for training and recruiting OST providers for students with individualized education programs. The bill would address the disparities that students with disabilities face in accessing OST programs. 

Flexible Learning Models

In response to evolving educational needs, some states are exploring legislation that facilitates more flexible and innovative learning models. These initiatives may be designed to ensure that students have access to learning opportunities tailored to their individual needs and preferences. 

Hawaii adopted a resolution urging the state board of education to submit a report on methods to enhance access to extended learning opportunities that offer students credit toward graduation upon completion of out-of-school programs. The report will focus on nontraditional and external learning experiences. 

In New York, a pending measure would establish a summer program offering students hands-on agricultural and entrepreneurship work experiences. 

Looking Ahead

States continue to address the educational needs of students beyond regular school hours. Through increased funding, a heightened focus on academic enrichment, program evaluation, and flexible learning models, states have demonstrated a robust commitment to expanding learning opportunities for students. ESSER dollars have been a pivotal catalyst in supporting these initiatives, allowing states to strategically allocate resources to underserved populations and targeted program enhancements. 

However, as states navigate these initiatives, the federal funding cliff is a looming challenge. The temporary nature of ESSER dollars has states searching for sustainable strategies to create lasting impacts. States not only are responding to immediate challenges but also are laying the groundwork for future trends. The collaborative role of afterschool networks, the strategic allocation of funds in various states, and the emphasis on learning recovery collectively point toward an evolving approach to afterschool and summer programs. 

Autumn Rivera is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Education Program.

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