Karen Pittman has seen a lot of progress in how people view the role of after-school programming in the development and success of at-risk children.
While these programs used to be seen as a pleasant but ultimately unnecessary luxury, more and more communities are beginning to understand the intrinsic value of expanded learning opportunities, said Pittman, a national youth development expert and founder of the nonprofit Forum for Youth Investment.
“We’ve now got both the evidence and the brain science, and we’ve really got the sophistication in terms of our training and supports,” she said. “We’re pretty close to being able to get to a place where we can talk about youth development and out-of-school programs as critical, contributing partners to young people’s learning and development,” she said.
Pittman led a nearly two-hour conversation with Tulsa leaders and educators Thursday morning about the need to invest in out-of-school programs. The Opportunity Project, a citywide intermediary network that seeks to improve the quality of and access to expanded-learning opportunities, hosted the discussion as part of the 20th annual Lights on AfterSchool celebration, which featured similar events in cities across the country.
Out-of-school programs provide children real-world opportunities to practice and build on the skills they’ve learned in the classroom, Pittman said. What’s more, they allow kids to develop crucial relationships with caring adults and can help reverse the damaging effects of adverse childhood experiences.
With what’s known about how these experiences affect a child’s education and growth, Pittman said communities have a responsibility to create more equitable opportunities for learning and engaging in a variety of ways.
She stressed the importance of finding funding sources for out-of-school programs to ensure that they reach their potential. Financially strapped school districts aren’t equipped to pay the cost of expanded-learning opportunities, so it’s up to everyone else to pick up the slack, she said.
“It’s our responsibility to really help the community and all the other social service and health agencies and law-enforcement agencies in the community to understand the value of making this investment,” Pittman said.
Tulsa Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Paula Shannon said an extensive education career spanning three major urban centers has taught her that successful out-of-school programs require a dedicated funding source from outside the district.
That’s why Shannon called for local and state government officials to do more to fund the organizations providing the opportunities.
“The school system can’t sustain out-of-schooltime learning,” she said. “That’s not our job. We can be great partners, and we should be great partners. We should leverage our facilities. We have lots of schools in the middle of neighborhoods. We should have our facilities open and serving kids as long as possible. But we don’t have to be the primary people doing all the serving.”
Although local education-focused organizations have benefited from generous philanthropy, state Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, said it’s paramount that the public sector gets involved.
Oklahoma has not had a dedicated state resource for after-school programs. With the challenges facing students in urban and rural communities alike, Nichols said there’s a desperate need for funding to support kids outside of class.
But he cautioned that after-school programs don’t draw much attention at the state Capitol and urged educators to press lawmakers to invest in these programs and organizations.
“(Additional funding) won’t happen unless people in after-school programs that are running them start having conversations with legislators about the need for it,” Monroe said.