Jeff Yost: Expanded Learning Opportunities – A Wise Investment

By Jeff Yost

Dozens of variables impact a child’s ability to reach their potential through our traditional education system. However, everyone can agree that the number of hours of instruction a child receives is key. In almost every situation, the more hours a child is actively engaged, the more they learn.

In Nebraska, nearly everyone works—70 percent of adults, in fact. While this is great news for our state’s economy, it does mean many Nebraska youths are left to their own devices, literally, when the school day is done. When the school bell rings, students leave their “thinking caps” in their lockers. They go home, let themselves in, sit down, and turn on a screen.

Educators, parents and leaders in many places Nebraska Community Foundation (NCF) works are looking to change that by turning afterschool hours into extended learning time. Collaborative partnerships known as “Expanded Learning Opportunities” (or ELOs) are popping up all over the NCF network and proving their benefits to everyone they touch.

An ELO might be structured as an afterschool program in the school building. Many districts not only provide a safe place, healthy snack, and homework assistance—an obvious baseline benefit for all families – but also a place to increase hours of learning that align with the district’s AQuESTT goals Nebraska’s statewide accountability system). This can help close the achievement gap. In other words, learning opportunities that happen beyond the school day can help student performance during the school day.

Not every school has the capacity to do this work on its own, due to lack of funding or trained personnel.  These shortfalls can be mitigated through school-community partnerships. For example, in 2017, Boone Central Schools partnered with NCF’s Boone County Foundation Fund (BCFF) to research strategies for providing quality afterschool programming. With the help of Beyond School Bells initiative, the school was awarded a Nebraska Expanded Learning Opportunities grant to create programs that are replicable in other districts. In addition to traditional afterschool programming, the curriculum is rooted in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) topics. Support from the BCFF helps keep the cost to families affordable, which benefits the parents and their employers.

Working in tandem with strong schools, ELOs are preparing our young generation for the kinds of jobs businesses are trying to fill today, and the type of careers that will be offered in the near future.

Many ELO programs can be found at different locations, such as community centers and libraries. And they can be offered whenever and wherever curiosity calls—including during the summer months. Since ELO’s do not have the same rigid expectations and measurements facing administrators and teachers, which leave very little room for flexibility, they are a place where kids are learning by having fun.

Programs that involve gardening may boost a child’s understanding of botany and her interest in agriculture. Health and wellness activities, arts and crafts, coding, robotics, and field trips are some of the many pathways toward stimulating a young person’s urge to learn, yet don’t fit into an already busy schedule of the traditional school day.

In Syracuse, Nebraska, the library offered its second “Summer Blast” enrichment program last year serving 50 kids – twice as many as the previous year. The library and the school have formed a productive partnership in which courses like “Disgusting Science” give kids hands-on learning – the kind of learning that lasts. Once again, funding provided by the local library foundation’s endowment fund makes the programs possible and affordable.

ELOs can open a door for youngsters to explore possibilities that may lie ahead in their own hometown.

For the past seven years, NCF’s Valley County Foundation Fund has sponsored a weeklong EntrepreneurShip Investigation Camp (ESI) for middle and high school students through a collaboration with 4-H.  Kids spend a week exploring their entrepreneurial strengths and passions with trainers and community mentors, then sell their products on the town square. A highlight of the program is visiting local business owners to learn about opportunities that are available in their hometowns. The program has been growing each year and has spun off a continuum of youth engagement, leadership and entrepreneurship programs aimed at attracting young people back to the Ord, Nebraska area.

The idea of offering Expanded Learning Opportunities is becoming part of Nebraska’s workforce development conversations, as it should be. Helping each student achieve his or her highest potential can only help enhance Nebraska’s economic future.

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