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A matter of time

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Summer is near, and schools will be closing. Philadelphia has regressed to the bad old days: The District will be offering summer programs at only a handful of sites, operating on a tiny budget.

We say “bad old days” because research has established what any teacher can tell you – summer learning loss is a serious problem. After two months off, students have to spend weeks in review mode when fall rolls around. The harm is greatest for students from low-income families whose summers are not filled with rich learning opportunities. In fact, research suggests that summer loss may account for most of the gap in academic performance between lower-income and higher-income students evident by 9th grade.

Beyond concerns about summer learning loss, the months of July and August are a potential window to provide struggling students with supports and opportunities to get back on track. The limits of a 180-day school year do not make sense for many students.

But Philadelphia has a budget crisis, and we are told there is no money to pay for extra time for students over the summer. The crisis has wiped out extra time across the board. Only a few pockets of opportunity remain.

During the school year, there is virtually no District money for programs to keep students engaged, learning, and off the street between 3 and 6 p.m. If a doomsday budget comes to pass, sports and extracurricular programs are in jeopardy. Even outside programs operating in schools are at risk if the District has no funds to keep buildings open after hours.

Again, this situation makes no sense. Parents from across the economic spectrum need safe places for their kids during these hours. Youth who are involved in sustained afterschool activities show improved academic performance and better attendance and are less likely to engage in risky behavior. Afterschool activities can be life-changing for children. Spending a few dollars per student per day can avert the higher costs of remediation, dropouts, and juvenile justice interventions.

There is a growing national movement emphasizing that providing more – and better – learning time is a key strategy for achieving educational equity. While there are different views about the role of school vs. outside programming, there is consensus that students should be offered more time for core academics and more varied enrichment activities. And educators need more time to collaborate.

In Philadelphia, while the District has few resources at its disposal besides its buildings, the city has a vast array of afterschool programs, serving more than 40,000 youth each day. And efforts are underway to turn this patchwork into a system that families can navigate.

One promising strategy is the idea of community schools – turning schools into year-round community hubs by partnering to offer an array of programming. Other cities have shown that community schools can provide needed services, improve student performance, and draw families back to public schools with little cost to the district. How? By tapping existing funding streams and getting diverse public and nonprofit agencies to collaborate.

We may find ourselves without a functioning public school system if we don’t find ways to make neighborhood schools relevant beyond the seven hours and 180 days a year that they operate. With more schools facing closure in Philadelphia, community schools seem like an idea whose time has come.

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