Expanded Learning Partnerships to Help Reinvent School for Upper-Grade Students

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The aim of this commentary—released as part of a series on expanded learning partnerships and learning hubs in a distance learning context—is to provide actionable guidance for districts, schools, and expanded learning providers interested in best serving older youth. We seek to answer the question: How can expanded learning be leveraged to support pandemic recovery, specifically for older youth who risk becoming disengaged from both school and work, and are at higher risk of developing anxiety and depression?

In theory, educators agree that a one-size-fits-all instruction model does not best meet the needs of our students. When COVID-19 hit our schools in the South Los Angeles community, we were able to go beyond theory and dive into innovation. To cater to each student’s individual needs, particularly those of high school students, we were able to use the flexibility and creativity of the strong partnership between our schools and our expanded learning partner—After School and Experiential Education (arc)—to reimagine what learning can, and should, look like.

Even prior to COVID-19, many of our older students were already navigating survival—balancing family, school, and work. Shelter-in-place orders exacerbated these challenges and, not surprisingly, students have had trouble engaging with distance learning when faced with the challenge of securing basic needs like food, housing, and family health and safety. Our school leaders recognized this unprecedented moment as requiring flexibility and openness to new norms of teaching and learning. To best support older youth in navigating schooling, we have had to change how we support students both in and out of the classroom. Here are some things that we’ve been learning:

  1. Expanded learning partnerships that support older youth work well with a hybrid asynchronous and synchronous learning model.
    The transition to distance learning unveiled how community-based organizations (CBOs) can be trained and supported by instructional partners to help deliver high-level content (e.g., prerecorded lectures across high school sites) while local school coordinators can organize individualized support for students. This approach has enabled teachers to better use synchronous classroom time to meet students’ educational needs while also allowing for the scheduling flexibilities that our students require in order to accommodate important family and work responsibilities.
  2. School administrators should encourage collaboration between teachers and CBOs, emphasizing that the larger the support team is for students, the better it is for everyone.
    For partnerships to work best, CBOs must be welcomed into the classroom. In the past, we recognized the reluctance of school staff to trust CBO partners as coeducators. School administrators need to acknowledge and validate these concerns while supporting staff in creating and testing strategies and approaches that result in collaboration that brings higher student engagement and success.
  3. Schools should implement a consistent evaluation and grading system and share the information with their CBO partner(s).
    Like many other middle and high schools, we have historically struggled with consistency and transparency around grading, evaluation, and accountability. Our expanded learning partnership has helped us to reimagine what this aspect of schooling can look like. We have had to be clearer about our goals behind grades—they are not just static summative “scores” but are rather important data points that ultimately support student progress and learning. We recognized that having more caring adults dedicated to student success opens up opportunities for a more holistic and comprehensive approach to evaluation and accountability.

    Prior to COVID-19, we used an outdated and inconsistent system for grading, evaluating, and holding students accountable for learning. This limited the ability of our expanded learning partner to understand how students were doing in school and therefore how to help. However, as we transitioned to distance learning, we rolled out a schoolwide project-based learning curriculum and single-grading system using a cognitive skills rubric. This classroom-based pedagogical shift allowed for deeper levels of collaboration and for full transparency between school and expanded learning staff. Now, using this shared platform, expanded learning partner staff are trained alongside school staff to help tutors follow student assignments and growth across a range of cognitive skills and content areas.
  4. It is vital to consistently evaluate new systems and partnerships to ensure they are working for students.
    We can learn a lot from students by listening to their words and watching their actions. Every few months, schools should conduct collaborative learning rounds (or focus groups) with a handful of students from each grade to hear, firsthand, what is and is not working for students and how our CBO partners can help us respond. Students let us know that they are turning to our expanded learning partners for academic and social support. Questions might include: What do you need when you’re struggling in school, and where and when do you notice that you are making the most progress? 

Bobby Canosa-Carr is the Director of Secondary Education at The Accelerated Schools (TAS), the first charter school in South Los Angeles. In 2019, he joined TAS with the goal of supporting innovative instructional practices; he has since forged a partnership with Brad Lupien and arc for secondary support. Brad Lupien is President and CEO of After School and Experiential Education (arc), which started as an outdoor enrichment program for historically underserved youth and has expanded to after school and enrichment programs (e.g., college and career readiness, drivers’ education, outdoor education) for older youth throughout California, particularly those in Los Angeles and San Diego Unified School Districts.