Oftentimes, when adults are asked to think back to the experiences and people who influenced or motivated them in their youth, a coach, club leader, camp counselor or other youth worker comes to mind. The presence of that one caring adult is often the spark that helps a young person feel connected to their academic learning, the world around them and discover new interests and aptitudes.
Not only do these crucial connections between caring adults and youth improve grades, graduation rates and positive behaviors, these relationships and the learning that takes place beyond the classroom has yet another, and perhaps more urgent, benefit: They can serve to buffer the short- and long-term effects of adverse childhood experiences. In Oklahoma — the state with the highest percentage of young people with three or more ACE indicators — the need is alarming. While there has been considerable attention around the cumulative effect of these toxic stressors on children, now is the time to rally around the supports we know to be both protective and compensatory. A critical link in that support system can and should be out-of-school time experiences for our most marginalized young people.
By embracing every opportunity for learning and understanding the deep connection brain science bears out between feeling safe and a young person’s ability to learn, Tulsa can shape a system of safety nets for young people. As the community grapples with the challenges our young people face, there is good news: We can rely on more than two decades of data and rigorous research to show us how we can improve youth outcomes, like promoting persistence to graduation and civic participation, increasing sense of belonging and connection, and exposure to career opportunities.
The success of young people and their trajectory into stable adulthood is not only an educational and philanthropic goal, it is also a critical economic imperative. Workforce development is a key opportunity for Tulsa, and building the pipelines for youth to thrive in the careers that await them should matter to every taxpayer. For youth today to become the productive and engaged citizens of tomorrow, they must find real-world relevance in their learning and understand how it connects to their vision of their future selves. High quality out-of-school time experiences do just that by giving youth a chance to discover new skills, build confidence and imagine a possible future for themselves. And not to be underestimated is the power that learning-by-doing has to complement in-school academic content and buttress the hard work our classroom teachers do every day.
At the heart of what makes out-of-school time learning so powerful is its position as the ideal space to practice the skills and competencies that we know drive youth success. By shifting our focus from a more traditional view of “when” and “where” learning takes place to “how” learning happens, we can create a dynamic system that helps young people thrive in school, work and life.
Karen Pittman is co-founder and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment, a nonprofit that helps communities make sure all young people are ready by age 21 for college, work and life. Caroline Shaw is executive director of The Opportunity Project, Tulsa’s citywide organization dedicated to improving access, quality and support for out-of-school learning.