Scaling Up SCALE

by Barry Waldman

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

A First Step to Converting the School Day

The American school system was created before the nation was, constructed in deference to the needs of agricultural families that needed their children to work the fields, particularly during harvest times. For that reason, school let out early each afternoon and went on hiatus during the summer.

That paradigm has persisted into an urbanized and mechanized 21st century bearing no resemblance to those pioneer days. Virtually no American child works the fields. And yet, the school calendar of yesteryear persists remarkably unchanged.

For working families ensconced in daily rush hour traffic, or shift workers on the job at night, the school schedule is a complete mismatch that fails to serve children or parents.

“The agrarian schedule where children get out at 2:15 does not work for working families,” said Cathy Stevens director of The Riley Institute.

Increasingly, families are relying on schools not just to educate their children but to babysit them during off-hours, fill their social-emotional needs and provide brain-building recreation as well.

Tackling pandemic learning loss

The State Department of Education and the Riley Institute at Furman University have teamed up to help schools develop afterschool and summer programs to serve these needs. They are investing $1.3 million for training staff and community members around the state to employ summer and afterschool programs to restore learning loss caused by the pandemic.

By various measures, children around the nation and here in the Lowcountry are performing worse academically in the wake of Covid’s disruptions. Less than one-quarter of South Carolina third-through-eighth graders taking the SCReady test met the minimum standards in English and math.

Many school districts in the state, particularly smaller, rural ones in the I-95 “Corridor of Shame,” are unable to provide afterschool programming. Most other districts serve a fraction of the children that need it. For all the children in afterschool programs around the state, three times as many have their names on waiting lists hoping to claim a slot, according to the South Carolina Afterschool Alliance.

The SCALE Program

The program, called South Carolina Afterschool Leadership Alliance (SCALE) will be a hybrid in-person and virtual educational experience. The program begins with a weeklong intensive on Furman’s campus from February 20-25, 2022. SCALE participants will take part in monthly webinars, take a field trip to a nationally acclaimed summer learning program, and work on a capstone project related to afterschool or summer learning.

The aim is to send highly informed and motivated leaders back to their communities to organize or expand afterschool and summer programs using best practices from around the nation.

Jason Sakran, director of expanded learning at the Charleston County School District, has encouraged his staff to apply to be part of the inaugural cohort of 20 participants. The program’s sponsors expect to operate three 10-month SCALE programs, for a total of 60 participants around the state. He believes the need for the program long pre-dates Covid.

“I would love for this to be a springboard to a formal statewide network that includes a funding mechanism, so a small rural district that wants to start an afterschool program has the resources to get up and running,” he said.

The Lowcountry Graduate Center recognizes that economic development in the region is largely dependent on an educated labor force. Programs designed to target specific performance issues among students facing the most social, financial and education barriers represent an investment in future economic development and social equality.

The Charleston County School District experience

Charleston County School District (CCSD) has provided afterschool and summer school to district children for years, though it fulfills a tiny portion of the demand. Pre-Covid, the District offered about two dozen summer school programs for roughly 3,000 children age K-5 – out of 50,000 students total. Half of those participants attended high poverty schools, often called Title 1 schools. Their summer school curricula were developed with an emphasis on STEM activities and a heavier dose of academic interventions. Afternoon programs were focused on enrichment activities like chess and robotics.

CCSD will continue that program this year after identifying children particularly in need of support for learning loss. Research shows that children living in poverty who don’t attend summer school lose much of their academic gains during the summer and fall further behind their peers.

At CCSD, the spirit is willing, but the labor market is weak – and the reason the summer session can’t expand to cover all children who need it.

“The challenge is capacity from a staffing standpoint,” Sakran laments. You can only take so many kids because the staffing model is paying only $12/hr. The beauty of our approach is that we bring in in outside vendors and projects, but there isn’t enough money in the pipeline and so it is not attractive enough for them to come in and deliver services.”