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May 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 8

Confronting Inequity / Bringing After-School to School

Schools need to create connections to teens' lives outside of school.

EquityEngagement
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High school students today are busy. Many of them participate in after-school activities sponsored by their schools—such as band, theater, and sports—or outside organizations, including religious organizations, recreation centers, and arts-based programs. School clubs, such as art, agriculture, and social justice clubs, are also increasingly popular as students try to form bonds, develop interests, and demonstrate involvement. Indeed, as students know, college and university admissions teams are looking at their after-school involvement in their evaluations.
High school students are also at the age when they are starting to date and hang out with friends more outside of the regular school day. Moreover, students in all types of schools are charged with completing what can be described as mountains of homework. I talked with a high school student in a suburban school a few weeks ago who shared with me that he sometimes spends two to three consecutive hours on homework at least twice per week. This student also said that he was busy with other after-school responsibilities: playing sports, working with his school's upcoming play, and tutoring his younger brother in math. I grew concerned for him when he said he sometimes falls asleep during his morning classes because he is so exhausted. But the student did not seem concerned. For him, this was a normal part of what it meant to be in high school, and this normalization of a packed schedule had begun as early as middle school, when he became more active in sports.
I have met students in different types of environments (suburban, rural, and urban) who are working part-time jobs. Their reasons for employment differ. The suburban students who work part-time tend to be working to "build responsibility," to pay for prom or graduation expenses, or to have money for clothes or gas for their starter cars. Students in rural and urban communities with part-time jobs, by contrast, tend to have to work out of need. In extreme cases, they need income to help support their families. In Pittsburgh, where I used to work, students did everything from shoveling snow to tutoring younger students. Regardless of students' reasons for taking jobs, however, working part-time obviously adds one more dimension to their daily schedule and may make it difficult for them to keep up with academic expectations.

Connecting Students' Worlds

Given all the things students are doing, it seems problematic to me that, as educators, we don't do more to make connections between the various parts of their lives. School-sponsored nonacademic activities tend to be classified as extracurricular. They are well-regarded, perhaps, but rarely honored as a central part of the formal curriculum of schools. Instead, they are seen as tangential to what really counts as students' learning opportunities. Non-school activities, such as working part-time, tend to be even further marginalized from an academic or scholastic standpoint.
As educators, we sometimes forget that the outside-of-school interactions and involvements of adolescents can be viewed as part of a curriculum. What if schools better aligned the school curriculum with learning opportunities and life experiences that are now considered outside the scope of academics? How could we build stronger synergy between formal curriculum practices of school and students' activities and engagement outside of the regular school day? If we could make those connections, we could potentially create more meaningful lessons and even decrease the number of hours students spend on out-of-school tasks. Especially in the case of students who work part-time jobs out of a real necessity to support their families, we should recognize their efforts and work to make them feel valued—rather than marginalized—at school.
As educators work to more deeply understand students' experiences and reconstruct learning opportunities to support them, I recommend the following practices:
  • Perhaps more than anything, listen to what teens are saying about how they spend their time after and before school—and why they spend it that way.
  • Acknowledge learning opportunities and skills that students might be experiencing and building outside of the regular school day. This might mean integrating their nonschool interests into lessons, or not giving as much homework in order to honor their after-school interests and needs.
  • Coordinate with coaches, directors, club sponsors, and—where possible—employers to construct extended school projects that connect academic content with students' out-of-school lives.
  • Recognize student effort and engagement outside of school as assets to the regular school curriculum.
  • Verbalize your willingness to support students who are working part-time by co-constructing school and academic expectations with them.
  • Acknowledge and provide emotional, social, and psychological support to students who may be working to support their families. Understanding the burdens on students can help you understand why students are tired, disengaged, or frustrated by traditional school expectations, such as completing homework on a nightly basis.

Honoring Their Experiences

Teens' lives are complicated and full of activity, with those living below the poverty line facing particular challenges. Educators mustn't take these real experiences for granted or see them as unrelated to school. Instead, we must be empathetic and integrative. It takes knowledge, skill, and maturity to balance school and work with other important activities and responsibilities. Moreover, we should recognize students' efforts as real strengths that contribute to their learning and development. This will make teens feel more welcome and engaged in schools.

H. Richard Milner IV is a professor of education and Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair of Education at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Racing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms (Harvard Education Press, 2015) and coauthor of "These Kids Are Out of Control": Why We Must Reimagine "Classroom Management" for Equity (Corwin Press, 2018).

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