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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Leveraging Out-of-School-Time Programs to Personalize Learning

Aside from their role serving as a “safe space” for students after school hours, today’s Out-of-School-Time (OST) programs - which include after-school, summer, and other holistic extended-learning opportunities - are innovative, outcomes-based, and surprisingly diverse. According to a 2014 report by the Afterschool Alliance, after-school programs serve over 10 million children regularly - especially low-income students of color - and are growing each year; and summer learning programs draw one-third of American families. And, far from being tangential to the “real” business of learning, OST programs are well positioned to be at the vanguard of progressive educational innovations and pedagogy - like Personalized Learning.

Personalized Learning is student-centered education that involves a significant amount of student voice and choice. At CCE, we break high-quality Personalized Learning down into six principles: next generation curriculum and assessment, competency-based progression, flexible learning environments, personalized learning pathways, social-emotional learning / academic mindsets, and engaged learning. In virtually every state across the US, schools and districts (and in a few cases, entire states) are experimenting with Personalized Learning as a way to meet the 21st-century needs of their students, especially those who might not meet their potential in a “traditional” school. However, there are countless other districts and schools interested in Personalized Learning but who are mired in logistical challenges, still seeking community support, or not yet ready to make this leap entirely. This is where OST programs can come into play.

Engaged Learning

To meet many 21st-century competencies, learning outside of the school building is vital. Many after-school and summer programs focus on hands-on and project-based learning, even. These OST programs provide engaging programs, utilizing the outdoors and access to other community assets, to attract children who otherwise would be unsupervised at home or in the streets. Some OST organizations curate internship, action research, or service-learning opportunities for their participants. PENCIL in NYC and Teen Empowerment in Somerville, MA, for example, have encompassing standalone programs that train, place and support teens from partnering schools in career internships or as community organizers, respectively.

What most OST programs share in common is engaging enrichment programming- often targeting skills that schools generally don’t tackle - while supplementing with wraparound services as needed. These programs are often outcomes-based, and staff members track youth members’ progress using data. Additionally, when the data is disaggregated and staff advisors share goalsetting with participants, there is a great deal of potential to give participants voice and choice and personalize their learning.

For example, The Boys’ Club of New York (BCNY) is one of many OST organizations that take the next step toward providing a holistic educational experience to its participants. The organization recently evolved toward a personalized case management approach, with staff collaborating to meet the various needs and goals of youth members - from educational enrichment and services, to leadership, to service-learning, to even school placement. Age-level directors track and support individual members, while they and other department directors provide a slate of programs and services. Members, in turn, begin to gain control over their own rigorous but engaging personalized learning pathways.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

Organizations that approach members holistically have the potential to be pilots for personalized learning. However, some OST programs also demonstrate the potential to translate their competencies into visible “micro-credentials.” Everyone is familiar with the badges used by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, but other groups are taking this into the new century by developing digital badges to demonstrate that students have attained particular competencies or achieved an accomplishment. The Afterschool Alliance (2015) explored this arena extensively, citing public school districts in Kansas, Oregon, and Maryland that used digital badges to give students concrete recognition for their work outside of a traditional school day.

Some communities have opted to provide actual school credit for OST instead of simply micro-credentialing. The state of New Hampshire, where CCE has worked extensively, now requires schools to offer school credit for Extended Learning Opportunities - which include internships and other out-of-school programs overseen by a community mentor in partnership with the school. Coyahoga Falls school district in Ohio provides credit-bearing blended learning courses (taken in large part online) over the summer to allow students to catch up - or get ahead in school.

There are also some examples where the innovation originates in the OST arena. Citizen Schools partners with existing public schools to expand the school day, supplementing the traditional school day with indispensable real-world projects centered on apprenticeships –in some cases, as part of a universal extended day.

In Rhode Island, the Providence After School Alliance (PASA) connects students’ after-school experiences with state standards to help facilitate their receiving course credit, with the support of the district. Students do not simply receive digital badges or acknowledgement of their work - it counts toward their progression in school. In these cases, the personalized OST experiences became endemic to the students’ educational experiences.

When rigorous out-of-school experiences, supported and connected to student learning plans, are paired with opportunities to demonstrate learning - through performance assessments - students obtain educational experiences that are at least on par with their in school assignments. No less significantly, they are doing so without overtaxing their in-school teachers, because the responsibility to oversee these after-school and summer hours may be shared among variety of community members and educators in shared responsibility. And these enrichment opportunities engage students where their interest lies, ensuring that students take increasing ownership for their own learning.


OST organizations can pilot student-centered innovations, and in the most promising cases, they serve as partners. This allows a community to temporarily bypass the logistical hindrances or stakeholder trepidation that face dramatic school transformations, and grasp the potential of personalized learning. This may simply provide a venue for something that the school itself will never attempt to accomplish, but it might also start an exciting and dramatic transformation. After all, we’ve seen that once students have the opportunity to taste what it’s like to have voice and choice - they rarely want to go back.