04/12/2012 05:19 pm ET Updated Jun 12, 2012

Spreading Success: The Expanded Learning and Afterschool Project

The push to reform and improve the nation's schools has been with us for decades. And while it sometimes seems that reforms come and go like waves reaching the shore -- first crashing loudly, then petering out on the beach before receding with little evidence left behind, in fact, we've learned a lot over the years about how our kids learn best. But putting that knowledge to work in our communities and classroom isn't always as easy as it sounds.

A new initiative backed by several of the nation's leading foundations holds great promise for applying such knowledge. It's the Expanded Learning and Afterschool Project, and its backers include the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, the Noyce Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. Its purpose is to gather and share research and best practices that will help schools and communities leverage the time children spend out of school in ways that accelerate their academic achievement. The Project launched with an impressive show of support that included the wholehearted embrace of the organization I lead, the Afterschool Alliance, as well as 650 other local, state and national organizations.

As its name suggests, the Project is focused not on what happens between the bells, buzzers, or tones of the regular school day, but on the ways children learn -- or could learn, if given the right opportunities -- during the rest of the day. The two parts of the day are linked, of course, but the Project recognizes what afterschool programs across the nation have learned from experience: that after a full day of classroom instruction, students are ready for an approach to teaching and learning based on hands-on, experiential methods.

The Expanded Learning and Afterschool Project has identified a number of specific principles that facilitate that learning. They include:
  • School-community partnerships that connect students to community organizations, businesses, faith-based organizations and others;
  • Engaged learning that relies on hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-dig-in methods to capture children's interest;
  • Affordability and scalability of programs, so that they can be sustained financially over the long term, and able to grow or contract with the student population;
  • Learning time after school and during the summer, so that we can take advantage of untapped opportunities for learning, reinforcement and enrichment;
  • Family engagement, so that a child's learning becomes everyone's priority; and
  • Health and wellness, so that a child is ready and able to learn.

The Project launched with the release of a study on what makes afterschool programs effective. Joseph Durlak (Loyola University Chicago) and Roger Weissberg (University of Illinois at Chicago) analyzed 68 separate studies of afterschool programs, and identified four evidence-based practices common to the most effective: 1) use of a sequenced set of learning activities to achieve, 2) active learning techniques to help participants acquire the targeted skills, 3) focused attention and time on skill development, and 4) explicit objectives for the skills being taught.

Afterschool programs across the nation come in all sizes and shapes, depending on the needs of students, schools, families and communities. We wouldn't want it any other way. But by identifying the common factors that make programs successful, Durlak and Weissberg's work can be useful to educators from coast to coast.

That's just the beginning of what the Expanded Learning and Afterschool Project plans to offer programs around the country. It's a great start, and there's more to come!

Jodi Grant is executive director of the Afterschool Alliance.