Extended Learning Time and Expanded Learning Opportunities at the Mirabal Sisters Campus, a Children's Aid Community School

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A Conversation with Marinieves Alba, Community School Director

One of the central components of the Children’s Aid Society’s (CAS) Community School strategy is Expanded Learning, which comprises after-school, Saturday, summer and holiday programs available to all of our students as well as integrated school-day programs that provide for some students.

At the Mirabal Sisters Campus (MSC), in Washington Heights, New York City, we partner with three regular public schools. Besides health and social services, one of the most valuable things that the Children’s Aid Society brings to the table is providing a complementary track within the educational experience of students by offering programming around life skills, career exploration, the arts and sports, essential elements of a well rounded education that have all but disappeared from most public schools.

As the literature about expanded learning suggests, time alone is not enough –optimizing the learning experience is what makes a difference. Having a rich menu of extracurricular activities during and after-school is critical. We identify academic achievement as a primary outcome of our community schools, while also recognizing the many factors that are essential to academic success, particularly long-term, life-changing academic success.

For instance, many disadvantaged students coming out of public middle schools and their families are unaware that competitive high schools and colleges require a rich portfolio of extracurricular activities in order for them to be considered as valued candidates. Students at more affluent schools are exposed to many opportunities that students from marginalized schools often do not have access to. We want to make sure that our students have the support so that they can become competitive candidates for a high quality education in prestigious institutions.

One example of the broad scope of our work at MSC is the CAS Carrera Promise Program, which is an evidence-based Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program fully integrated during the school day at MS224, one of the three schools on our campus. The program’s comprehensive youth development strategy focuses on building long-term relationships with adolescents, seeing them as “at promise,” not “at risk.” The program is offered year round, six days a week (including Saturdays). It begins when participants are 11 or 12 years of age, continuing through high school graduation and college admission. This “above the waist” approach is centered on a belief that teen pregnancies are prevented by teens themselves. When young people believe their future will be successful and fulfilling, they reduce risk taking on their own. CAS-Carrera achieves this result through its long-term, comprehensive approach including: daily academic support and enrichment, weekly in-class mental health services, weekly family life and sexuality education, weekly exposure to the world of work, career exploration, sports, artistic self-expression, and comprehensive medical and dental care.

Our programs provide students with a spectrum of life-enriching experiences that they would not otherwise have. Early exposure to the arts, athletics, civic engagement, career exploration, social justice and mentoring opportunities brings new awareness and expands their scope of future possibilities. We want our young people to know all of the opportunities available to them, including careers as engineers, anesthesiologists, pharmacists, community developers, architects, artists, politicians and myriad other possibilities. We are thinking long-term, we want to get young people ready for life by offering solid college preparation and career-focused, real-world learning opportunities, and by identifying pathways from secondary school into certificate or college programs.

As we look toward the future, Children’s Aid would like to be able offer this wide and integrated spectrum of enriching experiences to all students in the school--in the same way that our health, social services and parent engagement programs are available to the whole learner population. We envision additional opportunities to integrate our staff into the regular school day, to provide regular professional development for teachers, to offer more art instruction in schools with limited resources for the arts; promote student councils, mentoring and internship opportunities—in short, to expand into the regular school day what we do best during after school, holiday and summer programs. As Secretary Duncan observed at a Children’s Aid community schools conference last year, we need to pay more attention to student engagement and to making the best use of community resources in the process. Both equity and excellence demand this approach.