Expanded Learning Opportunities and 21st Century Skills
Editor’s Note: Our guest blogger today is Erik Peterson, Policy Director of the Afterschool Alliance, where his work includes building and strengthening relationships with policymakers and allied organizations to increase public support and funding for afterschool programs. Follow Erik and the Afterschool Alliance on Twitter: @afterschool4all.
If as a nation, we’re ever going to solve the education system problems that cause America’s schoolchildren to lag behind children in other nations on a host of educational measures, we’re going to need to look beyond the four walls and the seven hours of the regular school day. Reforms are ever under way during the regular day, and they deserve our attention. But kids are taking in information and learning new things during their every waking moment. Why not use some of that time to promote 21st century skills among our young people?
While not always characterized as such, 21st century skills and the four C’s (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity) are hallmarks of quality expanded learning opportunities like afterschool and summer learning programs. From teams of students conceptualizing, designing and building robots to solve prescribed tasks—to project-based learning built around community-mapping and mobile-application development—millions of young people are using the hours when school is out to develop and hone the skills they’ll need to flourish in the workplace of tomorrow.
The flexibility of the afterschool learning environment offers the perfect platform for students to learn by doing—the kind of hands-on, experiential learning that excites kids and that can be so hard to find space for during the regular school day. Along the way, students, especially older ones, acquire basic knowledge and cultivate applied skills – in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, as well as a variety of other subjects. Such skill-building and exposure to real work experiences spurs older youth to begin to imagine the work lives that might await them after high school and college.
In part because programs are often tightly connected to their communities, including local businesses, afterschool providers take seriously the challenge of preparing the future workforce to be competitive in the global economy. National afterschool program providers like After-School All-Stars and ACE Mentoring, as well as many local providers, create opportunities for internships, summer jobs, work-study programs, job shadowing, mentoring, on-the-job training and other educational approaches that include real-world experiences or community involvement.
ACE Mentoring, for example, is a national organization with affiliates across the country that educate and engage high school students in the integrated construction industry—architecture; interior design; construction; landscape architecture; and mechanical, structural, electrical, environmental and civil engineering. The program exposes students to career opportunities through mentoring from industry professionals, and then supports students’ continued advancement in the industry through scholarships and grants. The program came into existence because leaders in the fields of architecture, construction and engineering recognized that they had a pipeline problem—high demand for trained workers but not enough qualified people to fill the jobs.
Other afterschool programs take a different path, focusing on different skills, serving different age groups, and tailoring their methods and subjects to their own communities’ needs. But all are focused on helping students succeed, today in the classroom and tomorrow on the job.
Across the nation, afterschool programs serve about 8.4 million children each afternoon. Most programs are located at schools, but community centers, recreation centers, Boys & Girls Clubs, Y’s, libraries and housing projects are all common locations as well. Regardless of the site, quality afterschool programs are true school-community partnerships, with many sites working with half a dozen or more partner organizations to provide staff, volunteers, materials and additional resources. The men and women who staff afterschool programs are certified teachers, AmeriCorps members, youth development professionals and other passionate individuals committed to providing young people with the learning and supports they need. And while the federal government’s hugely successful 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative, along with a number of other federal funding streams, contribute together about 11 percent of the cost of afterschool programs, some 75 percent of funding for programs comes from fees paid by parents.
Successful afterschool programs develop and promote strong relationships among youth, schools, families, community organizations and institutions of higher education. The afterschool field’s use of experiential, hands-on activities makes learning more holistic, authentic and meaningful. This approach provides older youth with the opportunity to achieve the basics while engaging in projects they like, promoting civic responsibility, and helping prepare youth for higher education and the workplace. The extra learning time—and time to develop leadership, teamwork and problem-solving skills—are essential to ensuring that today’s youth are prepared for tomorrow’s workplace. If local afterschool providers or your state afterschool network are not yet part of your state P21 network, now is the time to reach out to them.
Image by Jorge Barrios (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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