By Pete Hutchison
Today’s educators are being confronted with a rising amount of pressure to achieve, and this achievement is being measured through standardized testing. The admirable goal of this testing is to, in part, identify and develop interventions to address the large learning gaps that exist among today’s students. Unfortunately, as more and more schools find themselves in a position of having to focus on test results, it appears to me, that these gaps are actually widening.
After-school programming represents a valuable avenue to provide students with opportunities to learn in alternate styles. After-school programs can provide students with different teaching styles and also provide educators with opportunities to use their creativity when teaching. While during the school day teachers must fit their lessons into a prescribed amount of time and in a structured physical environment where there is little room for experimentation by either the teacher or the student, in an after-school environment teachers have the flexibility to utilize different learning environments, as well as give students a chance to experiment in a safe setting.
This flexibility also allows for two foundational teaching platforms. First, empowerment theory is the basis for the Prevention Research Center of Michigan’s Youth Empowerment Solutions (YES) program. The young people involved in YES are given the opportunity to lead community development projects from planning through evaluation. It is through empowerment that the life skills imparted to each participant are taught. Due to the tight school day schedule it is neither practical nor feasible to employ an empowerment based model. Secondly, YES employs experiential educational opportunities for the participants. The many activities in each unit of the curriculum have been designed to be hands-on learning opportunities, different from the prevailing methods used in classrooms during the day. These two philosophical styles allow the creation of an environment where students have opportunities to experiment and fail, as well as succeed, with no worries of repercussions from the teacher. It is the belief of the PRC/MI that young people must be able to feel safe enough to fail in order to enjoy true growth and mastery of the 21st Century Skills we are trying to impart.
Additionally, after-school programming can be a vehicle to bring outside adults into the school setting. Due to the limited amount of time during the day, bringing in parents and community members often becomes counterproductive. In contrast, the flexibility of the after-school environment not only allows, but actually encourages, this type of intergenerational relationship building. Because of the strengths gained by the students through intergenerational relationships, the PRC/MI is incorporating these types of opportunities into our interventions, and evaluations are showing growth among both the young people and the adults. It also provides an opportunity for both young people and adults to learn how to relate to one another.
It is for all of these reasons (and more!) that the PRC/MI is using after-school programming to operate many of its youth centered interventions. It is also for these reasons that we see the power of after-school for teaching today’s young people.