Creating Learning Systems to Serve Youth: What Are the Game-Changers? [Guest Post]

by Nina Agrawal
Policy & Communications Coordinator, CBASS

“We are bound together
In our desire to see the world become
A place in which our children
Can grow free and strong.”
That’s the message students in the Berklee City Music High School Academy delivered at the opening of the 2013 PEAR Leadership Conference, co-hosted by Boston After School & Beyond in collaboration with the Institute of Contemporary Art on March 11.  Performing James Taylor’s “Shed a Little Light,” the students demonstrated remarkable poise and confidence—tangible evidence of what Boston has accomplished over the past decade to strengthen students’ learning opportunities and development both in and out of school.

Their performance was a fitting beginning to the day-long conference, Learning, It’s Personal!, which focused on transitioning from innovative stand-alone programs to youth-serving systems that cut across the education, youth development, and mental health sectors. As Boston Beyond Executive Director Chris Smith pointed out, “No one entity, even if it’s as big as a school system, can do this work alone.” Conference participants ran the gamut, from public school officials and after-school providers, to policemen, counselors, and representatives of faith communities.

Smith and PEAR Director Gil Noam framed the conference around four “game-changers” for creating effective systems: time, skills, partnerships, and data. “Distance = rate x time,” Smith reminded audience members. Each student has his own rate and distance to travel, and more time, especiallytime well spent, allows students to cover that distance. Rahn Dorsey of the Barr Foundation described the equation a little differently. “Time is opportunity,” he said, and we have to shift our focus away from achievement to opportunity, and the gaps therein.

Lucy Friedman, president of TASC, and Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time and Learning, spoke about expanded learning models that leverage time and opportunity. Davis talked about adding more time for all kids for core academics as well as enrichment, while Friedman emphasized the importance of school-community partnerships to expand learning opportunities, including joint teaching by classroom teachers and informal educators, communication among leadership, and shared accountability for outcomes.

Another common thread was identifying and tracking the skills that youth need to thrive in school, career and life—and putting that data to use. Smith called these “power skills”; others call them “non-cognitive” skills; still others refer to them as socio-emotional learning. Call them what you like, but they include creative and critical thinking, teamwork, communication, drive, and persistence. In an education-reform culture of “what gets assessed gets addressed,” being able to assess these skills is critical from a public-policy perspective. Researchers from Boston Beyond and PEAR presented on their initiative to align and integrate data collection across the Boston school system and out-of-school time programs to better understand who accesses the programs and how their needs are being met.

Conference participants shared their own game-changers throughout the day. Redefining “public education,” involving families, and providing mentorships were just a few. The accomplishment of this leadership conference lay in bringing together all the people in the game.


Nina Agrawal is Policy and Communications Coordinator at the Collaborative for Building After-School Systems (CBASS), of which Boston After School & Beyond is a partner. CBASS is a national coalition dedicated to expanding the availability of high-quality learning opportunities that help children gain the skills, knowledge and experience they need to lead successful lives. You can follow CBASS on Twitter (@CBASS_National) and Facebook.