Children's Aid Society Community Schools Bridge the Opportunity Gap

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Since 1992, the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) has been working in deep partnership with the New York City Department of Education to create community schools, a life-changing strategy that organizes the resources of the school and the community around student success.

In a landmark study on academic achievement conducted over 20 years ago, Reginald Clark identified out-of-school time as making the critical difference between successful and failing low-income students. He found that academically effective children, despite their economic disadvantages, spent 20-35 hours per week reading for pleasure, playing games (chess, checkers, Scrabble, Pictionary, etc.) that built critical thinking and vocabulary skills, talking with knowledgeable adults and participating in programs that provided structure, clear limits and challenging experiences rich in content.  This is exactly the model our schools follow. 

Evaluations of Children’s Aid after-school, holiday and summer enrichment programs have consistently documented impressive results. Participants show statistically significant differences in math and literacy achievement, better school attendance and behavior, higher education and career aspirations, and a stronger sense of responsibility to the community.  These results are heartening, but not surprising.   The evaluated programs are based on best practices in out-of-school time learning, and the daily program provides a balance of academic support with social, cultural and recreational enrichment. 

Academic standards are the base of our extended learning opportunities during and after school, to ensure that we support the schools’ academic plan. At each school, we have an educational coordinator (usually a teacher at the school) guided by the agency’s director of education.  We combine academic standards with a youth development framework to prevent risk and promote opportunities for students. 

 “We are very explicit about linking the common core standards (CCS) to all curricula that we implement,” explains Jaynemarie Enyonam Angbah, CAS Education Director for the School-Age Division. “Each lesson that we developed for summer and fall programming in 2013 has a section called ‘common core connection’ that clearly states which standards are being addressed in the session.  We ensure that each element builds and strengthens academic vocabulary. Any pre-developed curricula are also common-core aligned.”

The fall curriculum outlines the selections for school year programming. There are various options for all of the content areas, which include Literacy, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), Social Emotional Learning, Arts and Self-Expression and Fitness and Nutrition. The recommendations include curricula and programs that staff has found strong and successful, such as Afterschool KidzScience and KidzLit (from the Developmental Studies Center) as well as original curricula like the Book Clubs, Word Bee and Social Emotional Learning Handbook.

Jaynemarie stresses that our goal is not to replicate what goes on in the school day, but to provide our young people with opportunities to think critically and expand upon the skills and information that they receive in school. She says that all of the lessons and activities are engaging and capitalize on student’s creative expression. All content is also developmentally appropriate and positioned so that it strengthens and revisits prior knowledge.

“Enrichment is the thread that connects all our extended learning opportunities, during the regular school day and during out-of school time,” observes Janice Chu-Zhu, senior director of national capacity building at the National Center for Community Schools (NCCS). “Thematic learning is our organizing tool. That is how we create a unified structure, and research supports this approach. Our framework is what makes our programs so effective.”

Jorge Blau, director of after-school programs at the Salomé Ureña de Henriquez campus, a CAS middle/high community school in Washington Heights, says that enrichment is built into everything they do.  “Just last week, during the run up to [advocacy event] ‘Lights on Afterschool,’ we exposed participants to advocacy in its different forms,” Blau says.  “After attending an advocacy workshop, groups of seventh and eighth graders went into the community and got businesses to place posters in their storefronts to create a ‘Lights on’ zone.  They also collected signatures to support after-school programs. They wrote and designed the petition themselves.”

Blau adds that is hard to keep middle school students engaged but, judging by their high enrollment and attendance and by the opinion of two 8th grade students chosen at random, the challenge has been conquered.  “Many homes don’t have educational materials like books –or even the Internet,” Yalitza Adames says.  “So you either watch TV after school or hang out on the street, and around here that often means trouble.  During the after-school program, you learn and have fun at the same time.  We enjoy being here.”  Her classmate, Jorge Alvares, agrees.  “I would rather stay in the after-school program.  It would be impossible for me to do homework at home. I live with several cousins and they are always fighting or playing, so I wouldn’t be able to concentrate.  It’s definitely safer here.  And it is also fun because there are many, many clubs.”