Strengthening Out-of-School Time Initiatives to Support Student Success: The Role of United Way in Afterschool, Weekends, and Summer Learning

Ayeola Fortune

Director of Education Initiatives, United Way World Wide

Any effort to improve education must factor in the reality that students spend only 20% of their time in school (Davis & Farbman, 2002). Boosting youths’ opportunity for success—in school, work, and life—must therefore include a robust strategy for using out-of-school time to expand learning opportunities. 

This strategy must include a shared vision, collaboration, aligned activities, and collective action among all sectors to reach our youth with high quality, well-designed, and well-implemented afterschool, summer, and weekend programs. 

Working with our partners at the national, state, and local level, we want to cut the number of high school dropouts—currently 1.3 million students every year—in half.

This is an issue that matters to United Way. Education is a priority for our network of 1,200 state and local United Ways. Working with our partners at the national, state, and local level, we want to cut the number of high school dropouts—currently 1.3 million students every year (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2010)—in half. Quality afterschool and summer programs can address the very factors (such as poor attendance, failing grades, misbehavior, very low test scores, and disengagement from schools) that have been linked to dropping out (Hammond, Linton, Smink, & Drew, 2007). 

That means ensuring that meaningful supports and opportunities exist for all children—especially children from disadvantaged families—from birth through young adulthood. 

It also means seizing every opportunity. United Way network surveys have found that some 95% of local United Ways fund out-of-classroom learning, but far fewer actually collaborate strategically with program providers and other key stakeholders to develop a system of well-placed, quality afterschool, weekend and summer learning programs that strategically capture the energy of many different providers and build strong school-community-family partnerships. 

As program funders, United Ways have a unique opportunity to help advance

  • academic enrichment and supports that expand learning in engaging ways after the school day ends and during the summer and that do not merely provide youth with “more of the same” from the typical school day;

  • opportunities for youth to build personal skills, cultivate new interests, and develop meaningful relationships with peers and supportive adults; and

  • opportunities for youth to engage in constructive extracurricular activities that support learning and development.

Yet, communities also need systemic approaches to address ongoing challenges around access, quality, participation, alignment, coordination, and sustainability. 

United Ways are respected as community conveners, communicators, connectors, and funders. Increasingly, they are using their considerable capacity to fill these roles in their communities to help individuals and institutions better understand and fully realize the potential of afterschool, summer, and weekend programs to improve student success. They are mobilizing the community around expanding quality afterschool and summer learning programs, while working to deepen and strengthen existing efforts to ensure that community and school-based programs are high quality, relevant, engaging, age appropriate, accessible, and effectively targeted to serve those most in need.

That is happening across the country. In Boston, the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack County brought together key stakeholders to examine the challenge, to plan, and then to act in alignment. The group fielded a survey on existing youth assets, developed summer literacy and employment programs, and organized a donated playground in a housing development. 

The aim was to maintain or increase student reading skills, build the capacity of afterschool and summer staff, and increase school partnerships and family engagement. The coalition (involving three United Ways) integrated literacy into expanded learning time programs in underperforming school districts, targeting more than 1,800 youth in seven communities. Some 68 hours of training for 100 staff helped integrate language and literacy into out-of-school-time learning, bring school and program staff together to learn from each other, and improve school-program-family partnerships.

Results for the Boston Summer Literacy Initiative showed that 85% of the participating youth tested better than expected—with 68% showing academic gains, according to a study commissioned by the MA Department of Early Education and Care (Love, 2011). Youth read more, improved their vocabulary and reading comprehension, and improved their attitudes toward reading. 

. . .the United Way for Greater Austin made community engagement a focus of its expanded learning time work, including youth focus groups that informed an action agenda.

In Austin, Texas, the United Way for Greater Austin made community engagement a focus of its expanded learning time work, including youth focus groups that informed an action agenda. Afterschool, school community partnerships, and family involvement were incorporated as a cornerstone of the United Way’s new Middle School Matters initiative, a partnership with 16 agencies, including expanded learning time providers, to provide tutoring, parent education, mentoring, and after-school programs in the three lowest-performing schools. 

Leveraging both organizational and individual partnerships is the “sweet spot” for many United Ways. These organizations are uniquely positioned in communities to support afterschool and summer learning coalitions by tapping

  • their ability to reach across sectors (e.g., local government, schools, cultural and philanthropic institutions, faith and community-based organizations, non-profit agencies); 

  • their annual workplace campaigns that engage individual donors; 

  • and their strong business relationships. 

For example, as part of United Way’s national call to action to recruit one million education volunteers, United Ways are recruiting employees of local businesses as mentors and tutors for youth who may not have adult role models. By identifying and developing these mentors, volunteers, and tutors from the business community—and by regarding them appropriately as “second-shift caring adults” or “community teachers”—United Ways can give added significance and attention to this vitally important community learning resource.

In Grand Rapids, the Heart of West Michigan United Way is bringing the community together around 900 struggling students in its most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Some 1,200 community volunteers work one-on-one in the Schools of Hope initiative, with more than 60 companies giving their employees paid time off to mentor or tutor after school. The strategy is paying off, as kids are gaining academic and other skills.

Driving systemic improvements in afterschool, summer, and weekend programs requires understanding what works and replicating success. Since 2008, with the support of JCPenney, United Way Worldwide invested in out-of-school-time initiatives in 10 communities. These pilots have dug deep to strengthen existing, or build new, expanded learning time coalitions; map the availability and quality of programs in their communities; address the gaps in data, services, and opportunities; and engage key constituencies (for example, youth, parents, teachers) to get a better sense of needed supports.

Collectively, these learnings suggest that United Ways can significantly strengthen these efforts in their communities by taking these steps:

  • Map the expanded learning time landscape. Without knowing where quality afterschool, weekend, and summer learning assets are located and needed, good and informed decisions are impossible. Many communities begin without a clear understanding of where the programs are, who they serve, and what kinds of outcomes they are producing. Gaining this understanding can be transformative, identifying unmet needs and galvanizing support.

  • Measure program quality. Many programs do not have a way to assess their own impact and quality. Programs often use different approaches to show impact, so comparisons cannot be made. United Ways can help develop a common language and understanding of quality across programs. As funders, United Ways can invest in quality improvement approaches that tie professional development to specific areas that need support. There is a growing body of research that is finding factors that are linked to better program results.

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