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2019-07-25

Confidence and Belonging: Addressing Learning Environments

As Rebecca Charles wrapped up her year of service as a City Year Philadelphia AmeriCorps member last month, the 23-year-old found herself reflecting on all the reasons why a student may want to come to school every day—or may decide to stay away, instead. This past year, she says she has learned how caring adults—including AmeriCorps members—can help to create learning environments where young people can thrive and where they feel welcomed and valued.

Key to that environment, says Rebecca, are afterschool and extracurricular programs that can tap into students’ talents and passions and make school feel engaging and safe. Academic studies back this up. As far back as 1995, the National Center for Education Statistics found that participation in extracurricular programs helped improve student attendance, achievement and aspirations for postsecondary education. More recent studies report higher grade point averages and high school graduation rates for students who participate in programs such as debate team, theater and sports.

Access to Afterschool and Extracurricular Programs is an Issue of Education Equity

The lack of access to high-quality extracurricular activities can contribute to a widening equity gap. Students who grow up in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty often do not have as many opportunities or resources to participate in these programs, which can place them at a disadvantage in terms of both skill development and the strength of their college applications, where experience beyond the classroom—whether athletics, scouting, the arts or volunteer opportunities—is critically important.

Growing up in Wisconsin, Rebecca felt her school was a fun and supportive environment where she had her choice of afterschool clubs, often run by parents of students who attended her school. Those clubs gave students who may have felt out of place in class or the playground a chance to really shine and explore their talents, she says.

“There was always an afterschool option for kids with all kinds of interests,” Rebecca recalls. “For me, the school’s drama club and just having the arts helped me to have a more positive experience, especially when I started high school.”

The experience for some students today is notably different. Not all schools offer afterschool programs and extra-curriculars such as music, dance and student government, which can be powerful tools to inspire some students to come to school. And even when schools do offer such programs, many students are not able to access them.

According to a 2015 study from the Annenberg Institute:

“While public schools theoretically provide equal access to afterschool activities to all enrolled students, the reality is that access has become increasingly limited to children from middle- and upper-class families. In our recent study, we examined trends in extracurricular participation from the 1970s to today... Our findings are alarming: while upper-middle-class students have become more active in school clubs and sports teams since the 1970s, working-class students have become increasingly disengaged and disconnected, their participation rates plummeting in the 1990s and remaining low ever since.”

For a lot of students, school is just a place where you're getting yelled at, suspended or kicked out of class—a place where you’re constantly getting in trouble,” Rebecca says. “For others, school is a place you don’t want to be because of bullying or simply because the learning experience isn’t as engaging as it could be.

These challenges can translate into low attendance rates, student disengagement and low graduation rates. Sometimes however, finding one interest or passion can be enough to keep students in school.

Afterschool and Extracurricular Activities Can Help to Keep Students Engaged and On Track

In Philadelphia, just two-thirds of students end up graduating from high school—considerably lower than some other big U.S. cities. Nationally, the high school graduation rate is about 85 percent, according to the most recent Grad Nation report.

Research has shown that students who struggle with attendance, behavior and course work are at increased risk of falling off track and dropping out of high school, and that these “early warning indicators” can be identified as early as the sixth grade. City Year AmeriCorps members work to provide academic, social and emotional supports to students throughout the school day, encourage them to come to school and engage more deeply with their learning.

Knowing how much afterschool programs meant to her when she was a student and how they can help disengaged students connect with their school community, Rebecca decided she would start Drama Club and International Club at her K-8 school in Philadelphia.

“In school, Drama Club meant so much to me and shaped who I am today so I wanted to introduce my students to the world of performing arts and theater,” Rebecca says. “I also started the International Club because I've been very lucky to have had the opportunity to travel to different countries and I wanted to get my kids excited about what’s outside of the U.S. and their hometown, Philadelphia.”

In Drama Club, Rebecca taught improvisation to help her students learn important skills like thinking on your feet, how to interact with others and how to have engaging conversation, which are all important for building relationships and developing key interpersonal skills.

In International Club, Rebecca and her students “traveled” all over the world focusing on geography, culture and food—a topic her students were most interested in. She was even able to take a few of them on a special trip to a nearby restaurant to try pho, a traditional Vietnamese soup, for the first time. This trip was especially important to Rebecca because she was able to teach the kids, through eating food, the similarities between vastly different cultures.City Year AmeriCorps members emphasize student engagement and belonging

“It's hard to see immediate results with students, especially in eighth grade,” she says. “But you can see it in the very small, everyday things—like when one of my students raises their hand to ask questions in class because that's something we worked on together or when one decides to hold their tongue instead of saying something that might be hurtful. It’s the small things that might be hard for someone to measure, but I can see the impact.”

Extracurriculars like Sports, Theater, Student Government and Cultural Clubs can Help Students Develop an Identity and Sense of Agency

As her class of eighth graders transitions to high school, Rebecca hopes that her students continue to pursue their passions and develop their self-confidence and initiative.

“I want them to enter high school knowing that they can and should advocate for themselves whenever necessary,” Rebecca says. “City Year corps members spend a lot of their time advocating for students, but also teaching students how to do so for themselves.”

This fall, Rebecca will enter Columbia University to obtain her master’s degree in social work. She sees herself entering education policy one day, working hard to change many of the systematic issues that keep students across the country from completing high school and pursuing their dreams and, by nature, continuing the work she started in her classroom with City Year.

If you’re like Rebecca and want to do what you can to make a difference in a school climate while gaining valuable skills of your own, click to learn more below.

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