Beyond School Hours Conference Looks at Ways to Level Playing Field for America’s Kids

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Photos by Stell Simonton

Ralph Smith, senior vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, told participants at the Beyond School Hours conference in Atlanta that far too many children are falling behind in school.

ATLANTA — Schools can’t do it alone. That’s the message of the Beyond School Hours conference going on in Atlanta through Saturday.

A growing number of children are falling beyond the reach of school, said Ralph Smith, recipient of the conference’s Champion of Children Award, on Thursday. Smith is senior vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

“The core of our movement is that schools alone can no longer rescue and engage these children,” Smith said.

“It is up to us to reach out and get over the fact that school superintendents say they don’t need help,” he said. “They do need help.”

The Beyond School Hours conference is organized by Foundations Inc., a nonprofit devoted to improving the educational experience of children outside school and in the community, as well as in school.

Smith said low-income children are starting school unprepared, falling behind and then losing ground during the summer.

“These are the children populating the public housing projects in every community we live in,” he said. “It’s up to all of us to help,” he said.

Something is wrong when 65 percent of fourth graders in public schools are reading below proficiency level in 2015, said Rhonda H. Lauer, president and CEO of Foundations Inc.

However, she added, thanks to the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, a collaborative effort spearheaded by the Casey Foundation, “finally we have governors, mayors and city councils talking about getting kids to read on grade level.”

Lauer spoke during a panel discussion on creating high-impact after-school programs to improve students’ reading ability.

In addition to literacy, the conference focuses on providing college and career pathways for youth, and engaging families and the community. Topics also include STEM, summer learning and leadership strategies for sustaining quality programs.

Sylvia Lyles, director of the Office of Academic Improvement Programs at the U.S. Department of Education, talks with conference participants after her keynote speech Thursday.

21st Century funding finds support in new administration

Among the keynote speakers was U.S. Department of Education official Sylvia Lyles, who oversees the 21st Century program, the federal funding stream dedicated to after-school programs. Many schools and nonprofits organizations in low-income areas throughout the country rely on 21st Century funds.

Lyles said incoming officials at the Department of Education are supportive of the 21st Century program. The transition team of new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos expressed a positive interest in it, she said.

Lyles also talked about the problem of students being left behind.

When she was dating her husband-to-be 25 years ago, she noticed that he never sat down and read the news articles she offered him. After some months, he told her that, although he had graduated from high school, he had trouble reading. It turned out that he was reading from right to left and missing words, she said.

She realized he was dyslexic, and the two of them found a community college program that helped him overcome the problem.

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“He reads more than I do now,” she said. “He’s brilliant.”

But the experience was startling to her. “How can this happen?” Lyles asked.

Another keynote speaker, Damon Williams, senior vice president of program, training and youth development services at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, said that 5.5 million American youth ages 16 to 24 are not working or in school. “They are not on the pathways” necessary to success, he said. These disconnected youth are economically vulnerable, he said.

It is the job of after-school programs to engage young people and help them find their passions, he said.

Williams said a new generation of youth, however, are engaged in political activism.

Panelists discuss effective after-school approaches to improving children's reading skills.

Finding solutions

Research has shown that high-quality summer and after-school programs can move the needle in reading and math as long as kids attend regularly, said Ron Fairchild, director of the Grade-Level Reading Support Center, who moderated the panel on improving literacy. Only 20 percent of low-income fourth graders read proficiently, he said.

“To keep kids coming you have to think a little bigger with art, music, dance, STEM, social and emotional learning and a lot of family engagement,” he said.

It’s necessary to engage a lot of players in community, including families, educators and mentors, he said. Foundations helping this effort include the Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Wallace Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, he said.

When you frame the literacy challenge as a community challenge “it will feel less like schools are being blamed,” Fairchild said.

The relationship between schools and after-school programs is very important, said panel member Debra Mahone, grants project director for Elgin Independent School District in Elgin, Texas.

“It’s critical to have folks that will work together,” she said.

Lauer said it’s important to understand the barriers that kids face. She worked with one school that had attendance problems.

The principal told her the children were staying home because they didn’t have clean uniforms, Lauer said. The solution was to provide a washer and dryer.

Jane Quinn, director of the National Center for Community Schools, said a high percentage of low-income kids fail vision tests. Vision tests and glasses are important.

Panelists also offered suggestions for gaining funding.

Sign up for email alerts, look at the Youth Today lists of grants and “keep your ear to the ground,” Quinn said.

Look for both public and private funding and both education and non-education grants, she said. “Think broadly about finances.”

You can’t expect 21st Century dollars and state dollars to stay unless you advocate for them, Quinn said.

“All of us in this field have to consider advocacy as part of our jobs,” she said.

Today, best-selling author Wes Moore will present a keynote speech. A panel discussion will focus on how to help students navigate the opportunity gap.

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