Afterschool programs proving to be successful
The skills gap laid out in the recent report by America’s Edge New York, “Ensuring the Capital Region’s Global Success,” is alarming: while unemployment remains high, 82 percent of local manufacturers struggle to find enough employees. This mismatch is predicted to grow, with solid middle-class jobs sitting empty because not enough of our students graduate from high school and not enough of those who do have the skills and the education to take the college courses needed for middle-skill positions. While the solutions to this challenge are multi-faceted, an important component remains underfunded: afterschool and summer programs.
To be on a solid track to the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) middle-skill positions that dominate the Capital Region’s skills gap, students need to be interested in STEM by the beginning of high school or risk falling behind in the required math and science courses. As any good teacher will tell you, these are difficult years to spark students’ interest in academics — but it can be done. It takes hands-on activities that allow students to direct their own learning, opportunities for students to learn to persist in difficult tasks with tough but loving adult support, projects with genuine relevance to their lives, and deep convictions that their efforts will bring meaningful future rewards.
Expanded learning opportunities (ELOs) — high-quality, enrichment-oriented summer, afterschool, weekend, and other out-of-school programs— are an ideal venue for these necessary ingredients. ELOs typically offer a lower staff-to-student ratio, more self-direction, more flexibility, and deeper connections to the community than a school day class. They are not intended to take on the school’s crucial role of teaching academic content, but they are intended to help students understand the value of that knowledge and practice applying it. ELOs are often set up to work with community volunteers, so they are a great venue for the business community to connect with their future workforce. These opportunities can range from tours of a production facility or a career presentation to long-term mentoring and internships.
Research across the nation, reviewed and synthesized by the Afterschool Alliance, has found evidence that high-quality STEM ELOs can improve attitudes toward STEM careers and help students develop STEM knowledge and skills. STEM ELOs can also increase the likelihood that students will graduate from high school — and that they will then pursue a STEM career.
“Ensuring the Capital Region’s Global Success” highlights one such program in the region — Girls Inc.’s partnership with the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) on the Eureka! program, which offers girls five years of STEM-oriented ELO programming, starting in eighth grade. This model collaboration aims to create a sturdy pipeline for these girls into the Capital Region’s STEM workforce, diversifying the STEM field while opening life options for the girls involved. CNSE is also participating in a larger SUNY program that trains graduate students to mentor middle-schoolers weekly to engage them in STEM subjects.
Across the river, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute offers local high school students several free summer day programs — planned in collaboration with their specialized research centers such as Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center (ERC) and CURENT ERC — that focus on engineering careers for an intense, hands-on week. Perfect Ten, an afterschool and summer program in Hudson, has focused on nurturing a diverse array of career interests in their students, with a focus on goal-setting toward careers that require a college degree. The program works with local professionals to establish multi-session job-shadowing opportunities for 13- and 14-year-old students.
Local 4-H programs can be another route into career engagement. 4-H offers statewide events like the Agri-Business Career exploration trip and the multi-day Career Explorations conference at Cornell — 4-H Rensselaer is sending 31 students this year. STEM career interest can even be nurtured in the elementary school years, as the 4-Hs, Girls Inc., and others have found through the development of extensive STEM curricula that focus on hands-on learning and development of scientific language and thinking.
As these examples demonstrate, local ELOs have the ability to contribute to closing the skills gap in a variety of ways. Unfortunately, they often struggle to find sufficient funds to scale up even the most successful models. Local governments as well as local businesses should invest in ELOs that can help close the gap and meet the Capital Region’s need for middle-skill employees. Engaging our students in ELOs that give them from an early age — and especially in the crucial middle and early high school years — the space to explore career options in deep and hands-on ways is a proven method to increase their long-term interest in the STEM careers the region needs.
The writers are, respectively, executive director of Girls Inc. of the Greater Capital Region and executive director of New York State Afterschool Network.