Common Core stays after school

November 17, 2014

Jade Lara, left, Nina Rodriguez and Katelyn Hinkel work together after school on projects at Horace Mann elementary school in San Jose.

As California school districts implement the Common Core State Standards in English and math, more of them are looking to after-school and summer programs to help acquaint both teachers and students with the new approach to learning.

Learning beyond the regular school day that emphasizes hands-on experiences, allows students more time to grasp difficult concepts and builds social skills is often referred to as expanded learning.

“Several years ago, our challenge was to explain that expanded learning is not childcare or babysitting,” said Julia Fong Ma, coordinator of after-school programs for the Oakland Unified School District. “Now sometimes we are being asked to do too much because we are playing such an integral role.”

A preliminary review of 60 Local Control and Accountability Plans, which are meant to guide spending for districts for the next three years, found that 81 percent mentioned after-school or expanded learning programs and 85 percent mentioned summer programs, according to Jessica Gunderson, policy director for the Partnership for Children and Youth, a nonprofit based in Oakland that promotes expanded learning programs, which did the review.

“Several years ago, our challenge was to explain that expanded learning is not childcare or babysitting,” said Julia Fong Ma, coordinator of after-school programs for the Oakland Unified School District. “Now sometimes we are being asked to do too much because we are playing such an integral role.”

“The numbers are much higher than I expected,” she said, adding that the level of detail in the plans varied widely and that some districts could have strong programs and not include them in their plans because they aren’t allocating any new funds to the programs. For example, Oakland Unified has one of the most robust summer and after-school programs in the state, yet there is only one mention of expanded learning in its plan, she said.

Susan Frey/EdSource Today

Brandon Olguin of San Jose has already learned an important scientific principle in his after-school program: It’s OK to fail because you learn from your mistakes.

The 60 plans include most of the 25 largest districts, San Francisco Bay Area districts that work with the partnership, and a dozen districts from other counties, Gunderson said.

Although after-school and summer program staff are typically not credentialed teachers, they can complement what teachers are doing in the classroom through hands-on projects or tutoring that is aligned with the Common Core standards.

California’s new quality standards for expanded learning programs emphasize the Common Core. For example, the expanded learning standards include giving students opportunities “to play a meaningful role in program implementation,” which is similar to a Common Core strategy that encourages them to take charge of their own learning. Another expanded learning standard – giving students opportunities to collaborate with each other – echoes a Common Core theme.

At Bridge the Gap College Prep, an after-school program in Marin County, staff help students learn fractions by asking them to illustrate what they are doing and explain their answers in writing. The program also builds vocabulary with projects such as “said is dead,” challenging students to replace “said” with more descriptive verbs. In one story, a 5th-grader wrote, “Nancy complained, I gasped, I panted” and “the class screamed.”

Amy Reede, who is in charge of supporting Common Core strategies for THINK Together, the largest provider of after-school programming in California, said after-school staff are aware of what students are learning in class and often attend parent-teacher conferences.

First-graders in one class were eager to continue their study of weather and temperature, mostly, Reede said, because they were fascinated by the fact that mercury could kill you. After-school staff got the kids thinking, asking them questions like, “What do you notice about temperature and time of day?” Kids would respond with their evidence: When the sun goes down, it gets colder, Reede said.

After-school staff at Horace Mann elementary school in San Jose ask the students to consider issues and discuss them amongst themselves, another Common Core-aligned strategy. In one example, the instructor asked,“Why is homework important?”

“When you get to college, they don’t remind you to do your homework,” said Katelyn Hinkel, in an interview last spring when she was 9. “It’s important to remember to do it because you might have a test.”

Sometimes classroom teachers participate in after-school or summer programs. At North Elementary School in Tracy Unified School District, teachers take turns spending an hour in the after-school program helping the students in the grade level they teach with homework or difficult concepts taught in class that day before the students do other activities, said Nora Hana, who oversees the after-school programs for the San Joaquin County Office of Education.

This past summer, teachers in Oakland practiced, in a more relaxed atmosphere, implementing Common Core State Standards in English and math with the help of trained instructional coaches. In English, they asked middle school students to analyze historical texts and write persuasive essays regarding social justice issues. In math, students in grades 4 through 8 delved into the conceptual reasoning behind fractions.

In a report, “Time Well Spent,” the Partnership for Children and Youth calls for districts to take a districtwide approach, like Oakland is doing, rather than a school-by-school approach. The report also emphasized that district leaders need to understand the critical role principals play in creating and sustaining effective programs.

“Districts need to set the vision that expanded learning is part of their core work,” said Jennifer Peck, executive director of the partnership.

In her initial review of the Local Control and Accountability Plans, Gunderson also noted that some districts were emphasizing aligning after-school activities with classroom teaching. In some cases, funding was allocated for coordinators to do this work, she said. Many districts were also using supplemental funds that under the new school finance system are earmarked for low-income, foster and English learner students to enhance existing after-school and summer program funding from the state and federal government, she added, allowing these districts to have higher quality expanded learning programs.

“Districts are rethinking this opportunity,” Gunderson said.


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