The Common Core and Afterschool

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The L.A.C.E.R. (Literacy, Arts, Culture, Education and Recreation) afterschool program in Los Angeles offers a variety of activities to students , 90 percent of whom qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. Image courtesy L.A.C.E.R.

As the new academic standards known as Common Core roll out in schools across the nation, some afterschool providers are wondering: What do we need to do? Should afterschool providers sit up and pay attention?

Absolutely, say leaders of many afterschool partnerships.

"There's a lot we can do in afterschool programs" to align with Common Core, said Jodi Grant, executive director of the

Suggestions for out-of-school programs from the Forum on Youth Investment

- Become knowledgeable about Common Core

- Know your state’s timetable for putting standards in place

- Align your program’s activities with habits of mind rather than individual content standards

- Communicate with school staff about academic alignment

- Consider joint training and planning time

- Create engaging instruction

- Help schools communicate with parents about Common Core

Afterschool Alliance, a Washington-based afterschool advocacy group, and there are good reasons to do those things. The new standards take an approach to learning that is well-suited for afterschool programs, she said.

Robert Halpern of the Erickson Institute disagrees. It’s the role of schools to deal with academics, he said. ”There’s no reason afterschool programs should have to relate to standards focused on what schools need to accomplish,” he said.

What is Common Core?

The Common Core State Standards, now adopted by 45 states, arose from concerns that U.S. students were not well-prepared in comparison with students from other countries. Governors and state school leaders began addressing the problem through the National Governor's Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. They introduced the standards in 2009, with the majority of states implementing them this past school year.

Common Core represents what students in K through 12 should master in order to be ready for college and careers. The standards are not a curriculum. They attempt to be a clear and consistent guide for what students should know.

They apply to math and English language arts, not the full range of subjects. They include a list of principles, called “habits of mind.”

In language arts, the seven habits include: Demonstrate independence, value evidence and build strong content knowledge. Among the eight math habits are: Reason abstractly and quantitatively, attend to precision, and construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.

From these principles flow specific standards for each grade.

Polls of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association show that a majority of teachers support the Common Core standards. A survey conducted by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation also revealed widespread support.

Some opponents say implementing the standards will cost too much; others voice concern about the assessment tools which are being developed.

What this means for out-of-school time

Engaging, hands-on afterschool activities can align with the Common Core standards. Close communication with teachers allows L.A.C.E.R. to support classroom work. Image courtesy L.A.C.E.R

Some out-of-school programs are trying to get a grasp on what the Common Core standards cover. Some are wondering how to align with the standards. Some may be wondering whether they should focus on them or not.

For an afterschool debate program in Baltimore, it’s almost a “no-brainer,” said executive director Pam Block Brier.

"The Common Core standards almost feel like they were written with us in mind," she said. They focus on critical thinking skills, for one thing.

Her program, the Baltimore Urban Debate League, involves more than 300 students in 17 low-income, urban public schools. This year, the middle school students are debating whether solar panels should be installed in all the school buildings in Baltimore.

Program director Coleen Reyes said: "We're hearing lots of scientific arguments and economic arguments [from the students]. Students are gathering information and arguments from parents, coaches and friends. 'They're building their content knowledge," she said, pointing out that that is one of the Common Core habits of mind.

Kids learn to support argument with research and evidence, Brier said.

The debate program has even offered some professional training to teachers in using debate and argumentation techniques as "a toolkit of strategies" for implementing the Common Core.

"It helps make a case with school districts that our work does support their efforts," she said. 

A dissenting view

Halpern, however, would argue that afterschool programs have a different goal than supporting school efforts. Some programs may contribute to a child’s success in school, but that’s not their central purpose, he said. “Children and young people have a variety of developmental needs that schools don’t address.” It’s the role of afterschool programs to address developmental needs, he said.

He said many afterschool providers agree with him.

Providers who directly support children’s academic work generally seek to do so by creating activities that are both fun and teach skills.

The relationship between play and schoolwork

An out-of-school-time program known as L.A.C.E.R. (Literacy, Arts, Culture, Education and Recreation) works in four middle schools and two high schools in Los Angeles.

L.A.C.E.R. has a afterschool program in four middle and two high schools in Los Angeles. Image courtesy L.A.C.E.R.

The program has 16 full-time staff members, including a coordinator at each school, and a part-time staff of about 53. In operation since 1995, it currently serves 3,200 to 3,600 students, with an average day's attendance of 900.

When Common Core was introduced, "we started to try to align our standards and look for ways to be strategic," said former executive director Linda Horner.

An activity called Word Wizard, developed by L.A.C.E.R co-founder Sharon Stricker, is used to build vocabulary. Its content is currently aligned with the California Standards Test, the high school exit exam and the SAT, and can be adjusted to Common Core standards.

Each day, a new word is introduced, and students learn its meaning and spelling. Other activities are focused around the word and a spelling bee is held. A final competition, which students help plan, is held at one of the high schools at the year’s end.

L.A.C.E.R also offers a cooking club in which students practice math. These activities align with Common Core, but they are not about sitting in a room and memorizing information, Horner said.

"A lot of ideas of Common Core have to do with critical thinking and the ability to plan," Horner said, and lend themselves to a hands-on approach.

Resources for afterschool providers to... 

Learn about Common Core

Common Core State Standards Initiative

MetLife Foundation Issue Brief (From the Afterschool Alliance)

The Common Core Standards: What do they Mean for Out-of-School Time? (From the Forum for Youth Investment)

Linking Common Core and Expanded Learning (From the Partnership for Children and Youth):

Assist parents in understanding

National PTA’s Parents Guide to Student Success

Council of the Great City Schools’ Parent Roadmaps to Common Core

"Most importantly, it's fun and kids get to feel good about what they do," she said.

Aaron McQuade, with the Oakland, Calif.,-based Partnership for Children and Youth, echoes that idea.

“If you don’t make sure students are interested, it’s not going to be effective,” he said. Activities should be designed carefully and tested and refined as you go along, he said.

Making it work

Aligning a program with Common Core standards is easier for afterschool providers who are located in a school or connected with a school district, said Anneli Segura, executive director of the Utah Afterschool Network. Communication between afterschool staff and school staff is important, she said.

Her organization teamed up with the Utah State Office of Education to offer training. “The key is to provide training and resources,” she said.

Katie Brackenridge, senior director for out-of-school time initiatives at the Partnership for Children and Youth, sounded a note both of excitement and caution in a blog.

“From my view, there’s a lot of opportunity in this Common Core movement… But, we will have to be proactive and strategic to make sure we – the out-of-school time field – are defining our role and contributions, so that they are authentic and meaningful,” she wrote.