Extracurriculars Are More Than Nice-to-Have: They’re Essential

Opinion | Student Achievement

Extracurriculars Are More Than Nice-to-Have: They’re Essential

By Julia Freeland Fisher and Amy Anderson     Apr 24, 2019

Extracurriculars Are More Than Nice-to-Have: They’re Essential

Among many seemingly intractable problems in education, there’s one wide learning gap between the haves and have-nots that we know how to close: the extracurricular gap.

Here’s the problem: Low-income and minority students are at a structural disadvantage when it comes to accessing out-of-school opportunities. Children from low-income families are three times less likely to participate in after-school programs. By sixth grade, middle-income students will have spent nearly 4,000 more hours in after-school and summer learning programs than their lower-income peers. And parents in low-income and minority households are more likely to report a lack of available learning opportunities on offer in their communities.

This happens in tandem with increasing budget cuts to non-core academic subjects in schools across our country, foreclosing students who stand to benefit the most from enriching experiences across relevant fields like computer science, business and the arts.

This gap continues to grow, even in light of proven solutions like high-quality, out-of-school learning programs that provide dedicated academic enrichment, critical connections and opportunities to explore professional passions. As stated by Robert Putnam in the book “Our Kids,” “out-of-school activities are as important as formal schooling in predicting youths’ long-term educational attainment and earnings.” Children consistently involved in extracurriculars are 400 percent more likely to go to college than kids who cannot access these programs. And yet, these opportunities are still considered as “nice-to-have” rather than essential, particularly in our communities that need them most.

So how do we bridge this gap? We must revisit the largely held perception of school as a primarily academic institution that offers learning opportunities at a fixed time in a fixed setting. Re-imagining and expanding learning beyond the school—and school day—can allow the education system to fully leverage its community-based resources and assets. Expanding access to out-of-school activities propels our young learners to higher graduation rates, improved academic achievement and higher wages. Out-of-school spaces also offer fertile ground for developing critical thinking, problem-solving and social-emotional skills that are critical for future success.

And extracurriculars don’t just move the needle on human capital development. Students participating in out-of-school programs have the opportunity to develop their social capital, building a diverse range of connections and relationships across their communities.

Yet it is difficult to increase extracurricular participation by merely adding more teams, clubs, art classes or other opportunities. A large part of the challenge also lies in the growing knowledge and network gaps between families.

Take, for example, two students who live mere blocks away from each other—but who face different trajectories. Jenna is passionate about the performing arts and can supplement her academic instruction with piano lessons her mother heard about at work and summer drama camp at the local college where her neighbor teaches. But data shows that for every Jenna, there are two students like her peer Carla, who have developed passion for a subjects like science or math, but lack the money, knowledge and resources to participate in out-of-school learning experiences.

If students like Carla not only had the resources to overcome imposing barriers related to cost, transportation, and knowledge—but also the networks of adults to help them access an array of enriching opportunities that resonate with their interests—more youth could realize their full potential.

Organizations across the country have begun to recognize the need to provide strong support networks and relationships for young people and their families as they seek access the out-of-school experiences that supplement their learning and their social and emotional growth. At ReSchool Colorado (where Amy serves as executive director), trained advocates, for example, provide families with the tools, resources, and agency to choose learning opportunities at, and outside of, school that align with their learning goals and aspirations.

We also see promising examples at organizations like OutSchool and Big Picture Learning that provide learners with the agency to shape their own online and in-person learning pathways. In the process, they can build relationships with industry mentors, community leaders, educators and peers within their communities and across the globe. Summertime, too, represents a critical period when students can access relationships and leverage an array of out-of-school learning opportunities that transcend the institutionalized boundaries of the school day. Tools like Blueprint4Summer, which originated in St. Louis and ReSchool brought to Denver, are also valuable because they connect families with the information they need to find free or low-cost summer learning opportunities.

Even in the face of a formidable opportunity gap, there are proven solutions. Building access to high-quality, out-of-school programs during the school year and in the summer, developing networks of dedicated advocates and long-lasting adult relationships; and leveraging the existing assets that our community partners bring to the table are just a few.

If we continue to ignore the opportunity gap that we know exists outside of the classroom, students like Carla and Jenna will remain on separate and profoundly unequal trajectories. Fortunately, there’s a better way forward.

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