Volume XVII | Issue 2 | Fall 2017
High-quality after-school activities, such as a robotics program, can improve student attendance, boost social-emotional skills and improve academic performance. Photo: Marilyn Nieves

Learning communities

High-quality out-of-school time linked to student success

With just 1,500 residents, Wheeler County in north central Oregon is the least populated in the state. Four hours from Portland, it’s home to the John Day River, the state’s largest deposit of fossils, and three towns — the county seat of Fossil, and neighboring communities Mitchell and Spray.

What the area doesn’t have is a lot of activities for students. Mitchell and Spray, for example, have no scouting, no sports leagues, no faith-based activities outside of Sunday school. “Middle-school kids in particular have an absence of opportunities and are looking for other things to do,” says Phil Starkey, the superintendent of Spray School District, enrollment 56 students. 

A partnership between The Oregon Community Foundation and The Ford Family Foundation is helping Wheeler County — and a host of schools and organizations throughout rural Oregon and Northern California — fill that critical gap with high-quality activities aimed at improving student success. 

The K-12 Student Success: Out-of-School Time Initiative is supporting a wide slate of activities, from school-embedded programming to Boys and Girls Clubs activities to events targeted at helping students succeed in higher education.

In Wheeler County, the initiative supports activities designed to engage fourth- to eighth-graders, including math tutoring sessions, organized after-school games and an innovative robotics program. 

“It’s important to fill time after school for this age group, to give them an outlet for something to do besides going home and doing chores,” Starkey says. 

“We will get just about every boy and girl coming out to our activities,” says Starkey’s wife, Debbie, who oversees activities at sites in both Spray and Mitchell. “Of course,” she says with a laugh, “we’re the only game in town.”

 A wealth of educational research has highlighted a positive relationship between high-quality out-of-school time programs and student success. For example, recent studies of 21st Century Community Learning Centers (a U.S. Department of Education program) have shown that school attendance, behavior and grade promotion improve for students participating in high-quality programs. They also can boost social-emotional skills and improve academic performance, which in turn increases the likelihood of high school graduation.

“Middle school is a key transition time for kids,” says Belle Cantor, OCF’s program officer for education. “They start to make their own choices but they aren’t necessarily thinking long term. It’s also an area that no one pays a lot of attention to — there is a lot of programming for high school kids, but not for middle-schoolers.”

In Grants Pass, the OST initiative is helping the long-established College Dream program expand its offerings, aimed at encouraging middle-schoolers to pursue higher education. Launched nearly 20 years ago, the nonprofit organization offers a wide-ranging menu of activities designed to build a college-bound mentality in Josephine County’s neediest students. 

Core activities begin in the sixth grade, when participating students begin writing competitive scholarship applications, and continue throughout their schooling with college visits, academic support, summer employment opportunities, structured college savings accounts and internships.

“The Out-of-School Time Initiative is supporting us in engaging new middle school students,” says Quin Collins, program manager for College Dreams. “We are able to expand the opportunities.”

This summer, for example, the organization hosted an intensive two-day session with about 50 students interested in science and math careers. Also on the agenda was a three-day trip to an Oregon State University event for August’s total solar eclipse. “We took a busload of middle-schoolers up there, and they opened a dorm just for us and made it incredibly affordable,” Collins says.

Adults as learners

Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from the initiative. Grantees are encouraged to participate in an ongoing learning community, where organization leaders and staff can learn from and with each other. 

“The program is used as a quality-improvement tool,” Cantor explains. “It provides the structure and scaffolding so they have an opportunity to look at their program over time and make targeted improvements internally.”

In Grants Pass, Quin Collins is especially appreciative of the evaluation piece. “It seems like there has never been space for this conversation before,” she says. “It gave us an opportunity to be intentional and thoughtful about what things actually look like, and what it would take to improve our program further.” 


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