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Learning Pathways: Leading Our Children to Success in School and Life
Heather Weiss, M. Elena Lopez, and Margaret Caspe

Now is the time to come together to insure that all our children have the opportunities to succeed in school, in the workplace, and in a global society. Our children’s success will depend on our working together to build learning pathways that equip children in every community in the country to thrive in our rapidly changing world. Our nation is in a period of transformation, one in which advances in brain science, technology, and education clearly show how children, from birth on, learn, not just in classrooms, or on school days, but anywhere and anytime.

Walls that used to separate institutions, such as schools, early-childhood programs, afterschool programs, libraries, businesses, and nonprofit providers are crumbling, as a wide array of partners work together to develop this new learning ecology and carve pathways through it for children and families.

As we broaden the lens to take a more panoramic view of learning, we see that this new learning landscape taking shape in many communities includes good schools as well as a continuum of other learning opportunities for children and families beginning at birth and continuing through high school. These include early-childhood programs, afterschool programs, formal and informal summer learning opportunities, intergenerational tutoring and mentoring programs, family programs in libraries and museums, and other initiatives that involve parents and other family members in supporting and participating in children’s learning.

learning pathways_blogpost_november2016

Photo Credits (Clockwise from top left):  The Grable Foundation | Brian Cohen; Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, Renee Rosensteel, and Anthony Musmanno; Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care

This is not some dream; it’s already happening. In New York City, the Neighborhood Literacy Initiative, funded by the Pinkerton Foundation, makes the library an anchor institution and enables many organizations to collaborate to support children’s literacy development from birth through elementary school.  Our soon-to-be-released IDEABOOK: Libraries for Families, which we developed in partnership with the Public Library Association, will feature additional inspiring examples of how libraries partner with schools and other community resources to connect families and children to high-quality educational experiences from birth through high school.

Our nation’s commitment to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) learning is another case of how entire communities are using public and private funding sources to create STEM pathways that involve families, early-childhood and afterschool programs, schools, libraries, digital media, museums, and other partners. Similarly, as part of this anywhere, anytime framework, there is an opportunity to increase social-emotional learning (SEL)—not just in schools but throughout early learning, afterschool, and summer programs so that children follow a strong and cohesive SEL pathway throughout their development.

Equitable access for families

Building this new learning ecology means we need to heed decades of child development research and broaden our understanding of and increase support for the crucial role that parents and other family members play in children’s learning in and out of school. Our perceptions of family engagement must recognize the many ways families do and can support their children’s learning anywhere, anytime, regardless of race, religion, income level, home language, immigration status, and educational background. We also need to work together on behalf of the family leave, income, employment, and child care policies that support parents’ time with their children, and fund key programs that research shows are essential in preparing children in every community to succeed.  

A recent study reinforces the importance of parents in providing that learning. Disparities in school readiness skills between children from high- and low-income households declined between 1998 and 2010, and one explanation for these improvements is the “cultural changes in parenting practices that have increased low-income children’s exposure to cognitively stimulating activities at home.”

We know, however, that it’s easier for some families than for others to access learning and enriching experiences for their children, and that this “opportunity gap” can have negative effects on children’s success in school and beyond. In some communities, families have no or very limited access to early-childhood, afterschool and summer learning programs.  Now, with this growing recognition of the need for a variety of learning opportunities, families are faced with even greater challenges in finding good programs, resources, and experiences for their children. Together, we have a public responsibility to help families navigate this environment, create access to these school and out-of-school learning pathways for every child, and to work together for family policies that support parents’ and families’ efforts to devote time to their children’s learning.

Encouraging innovation

There is also a role for public policy in building this learning ecology and ensuring that the pieces fit together and work effectively. We have made significant progress over the past 20 years to build sections of effective learning pathways, such as greater access to early-childhood education programs, high-quality afterschool learning and enrichment opportunities, and family engagement programs that empower and support parents. But now, greater public, private, and hybrid investment is needed to complete what others have started, and to encourage and support innovative solutions for nurturing this learning ecology. Recognition of anywhere, anytime learning opens doors for new partnerships that in the past did not seem possible.

In Pittsburgh, for example, 36 CEOs from multiple sectors have combined their expertise to remake learning. After a decade of grassroots action among educators, makers, technologists, and learning scientists, children and families now have expanded learning opportunities through a network of 250 schools, museums, libraries, universities, and other entities. And in New Orleans, business leaders are demonstrating a fresh approach to providing employee benefits by teaming up with EdNavigator, a nonprofit organization that helps families find their way through the often-confusing mix of educational options—both in and out of school—and create learning pathways for their kids.

We also see local examples of parents taking the lead in breaking down barriers and building bridges between institutions in order to meet children’s needs. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, after a mother expressed a need for information on afterschool programs for her rising kindergartner, the city’s Department of Human Service Programs, working with parents, early-childhood and afterschool programs, and the school system, created an informative brochure that explains how to access afterschool programs in the community.

Policies supporting learning pathways

The groundwork for this learning ecology is slowly taking shape through the alignment and support of local, state, and national policies. Overarching federal policies recognize the necessary role of families in supporting a learning pathway for children. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education issued a joint statement on family engagement during the early childhood years, calling on schools and other providers of educational experiences to “engage families as essential partners when providing services that promote children’s learning and development, nurture positive relationships between families and staff, and support families.” In other examples, 21st Century Community Learning Centers reinforce the importance of serving the literacy and educational needs of entire families, not just children, and the National Science Foundation encourages innovative projects to meaningfully engage families in STEM. These guiding statements support the construction of the anywhere, anytime pathways in many communities that are enabling children and youth to succeed.

The need for strong learning pathways for children and families is also reinforced in the crucial transition period between early-childhood programs and kindergarten. The new Every Student Succeeds Act mandates that schools receiving Title I funds collaborate and conduct meetings with parents to ensure that young children have smooth transitions into school. In addition, Title I schools are required to meet Head Start performance standards, which include helping parents “advocate for and promote successful transitions to kindergarten for their children.”

States are also taking action to align federal and other resources to connect the learning pathway for school-aged children and youth. Enrollment in afterschool programs is increasing and thus responding to the need for safe and rich learning environments beyond the school day. Florida sustains its afterschool programming by complementing federal funding with local policy initiatives that enable participation by economically disadvantaged children and youth. In Vermont, a public-private partnership exists in which the Vermont Agency of Education, the Vermont Agency of Human Services, the Department for Children and Families, and Vermont Afterschool, the statewide afterschool network, all  work together to support program quality, and provide professional development to afterschool staff.

And there are so many more examples. We want to encourage everyone to join the continuing conversations about our country’s new learning ecology and to identify opportunities to connect the pieces to make effective learning pathways. Let’s all continue this work and shared conversation, asking ourselves and each other: How can we work together to build this new ecology and ensure that every child in every state and community has the chance to be successful in school, in a career, and in our global society?

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