Fifteen years ago, we opened our office in Baltimore. One of the first set of grants we awarded aimed to establish a network of after-school programs throughout the city and an appealing summer learning program. The programs were to be open to all children, regardless of income, and provide the extended learning time and exposure to new kinds of learning that middle class students usually enjoy. And, they would address the summer learning gap that occurs when poor children do not have access to the intellectual stimulation that their more affluent peers do when school is out of session.
Although years later evaluations would show that after-school programs increase school attendance and improve academic achievement, in those early days, we relied on common sense and experimentation. And our instincts were right: the research clearly shows the programs’ value.
Fifteen years later, brain science tells us why after-school and summer learning programs are important to a child’s success. Their hallmarks—informal learning using a broad range of teaching styles, student choice about what is meaningful and relevant, and emotional development and motivation (through nurturing relationships with adults and peers)—are now documented by cognitive science to support learning.
We now know from neuroscience that students’ brains change continuously, from pre-school through college—and that students learn all the time, anywhere. Flexible and meaningful learning experiences actually change structures in students’ brains, allowing them to develop new abilities and overcome many learning challenges. Neuroscience research also confirms that emotion and learning are integrated in the brain—teachers cannot focus narrowly on curriculum if their students are to achieve. Research also shows that students thrive when other conditions provided by after-school and summer programs are present, especially a sense of community and protection from stress.
We are happy, of course, that current research confirms the validity of our early investment in after-school and summer learning programs. Looking back at this example, I see the value of using our funds as risk capital to support initiatives that may not yet be fully researched but which common sense and experience indicate are likely to have value. Data can refine our work, but its absence should not discourage us from making big bets.
For the last fifteen years we’ve helped launch programs, some that have floundered and many that have flourished. Given the urgency of the issues we address, we’re very willing to take on risk and, with our partners, try new approaches. We’re here to test what’s possible and create new pathways to opportunity and justice. Fifteen years is a blip in time for our undertaking. We’re in it for the long haul—because, sometimes, it’s not until years later that the change for which we advocate is proven as the right road taken.