In defense of ‘extended learning’

In his most recent column, Peter Berger concluded that “extended learning” programs in public schools are “nonsense.” He also concluded that these programs, whose purpose is to promote the personal and social development of the students, fail to “enhance educational achievement.”

On the contrary, extended learning programs are needed more than ever and they have many benefits, including enhancing academic achievement.

It would be nice, in a nostalgic kind of way, if the traditional institutions of our culture, like families, Boy Scouts and church youth groups were still utilized to foster the social and personal development of children and young adults, but that is often no longer the case.

Single-parent families, economic stress, digital isolation, alcohol and opiates have all eroded the quality of family life. The personal and social development of many young people has been degraded by circumstances beyond their control, including a digitally saturated culture they did not choose. As a result, an increasing number of young Vermonters are suffering from anxiety, low self-esteem, hopelessness and despair. This is true even in “good homes.”

These maladies get in the way of learning and school is one logical place to address them. Because of societal changes, it has become the responsibility of schools to address the whole person and not just the intellect of the students. Schools are doing this because when the deeper needs of emotional safety and social belonging are met, the students will be much more likely to succeed academically.

The Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey is a comprehensive survey given to every middle and high school student in Vermont. It is a reliable window into the lives of our youth. The latest results are disturbing to say the least, and they speak to the need for extended learning programs.

The 2015 survey indicates that an increasing number of our young adults report feeling hopelessness and despair in their lives. Twenty percent of Vermont middle schoolers reported feeling sad or hopeless every day for two weeks or more. Eighteen percent of middle schoolers have had serious thoughts about committing suicide.

High school students also report an increase in hopelessness and despair and 17 percent of them had purposely tried to hurt themselves in the 12 months before the survey. This survey indicates that the social and personal development of young people in Vermont is in need of strong support. Extended learning programs can be an effective component of that support.

Despite these alarming results, the survey also offers reason for hope. The survey results quoted below indicate that extended learning programs, parents and teachers are all working to address the problem of despairing youth:

— Two-thirds of students participated in after-school activities such as sports, band, drama or clubs run by the school or the community for at least one hour per week; — 24 percent of students participated in extracurricular activities for 10 or more hours in an average week; — 78 percent of students spoke to their parents at least once a week about school; — 62 percent of students agree or strongly agree that their teachers care about them and give them encouragement, a significant increase from 59 percent in 2013.

From these statistics, we can draw some hopeful conclusions.

Schools and communities are offering extended learning programs that provide fun, challenge and meaning. Those programs are fairly well attended. Fun, meaning and challenge can be an effective antidote to despair and hopelessness.

Parents are involved in the lives of their older children. Parents have the fundamental role in fostering their children’s personal, social and academic growth and the fact that nearly 80 percent of them are talking to their older children about school is a good sign.

Teachers and other school staff have a positive and increasingly significant role in the social and emotional health of their students. Programs outside the regular classroom help school staff to fulfill that role.

Too many young people in Vermont are in despair, hopeless or suffering from a lack of meaning and purpose. Extended learning programs during and after the regular school day help to address and resolve this problem. Extended learning programs help to make schools emotionally safe and socially supportive, the fundamental conditions needed for healthy development and academic achievement.

Glenn Houston teaches at U-32 Middle and High School in East Montpelier.

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