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Commission urges expansion of after-school, summer learning programs

A legislative commission is recommending a major expansion of after-school and summer learning programs in an effort to reduce gaps in achievement between poor and affluent students, according to a report being released Tuesday.

“We know that after-school and out-of-school time programs improve academic achievement, boost social and emotional competencies, create protective factors, enhance college and career readiness, and spark passions that directly influence youth decision-making about their futures,” according to the report by the After-School and Out-Of-School Time Coordinating Council.

The report determined that the state would need to increase spending for after-school and summer programs to $5.5 million to accommodate the nearly 8,000 low-income students who sit on a waiting list for such programs. The current state budget calls for $4.3 million.

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But advocates and legislators say that waiting list understates the true amount of demand.

The report, citing data from the Afterschool Alliance, a national advocacy group, notes that more than 200,000 students in Massachusetts lack after-school programs, while 197,000 are enrolled.

State Representative Jen Benson, who cochairs the council, said investing in such programs is less costly than extending the school day and still delivers many academic gains to students.

“Massachusetts is extraordinary when it comes to prioritizing education, but we continue to have these disparities and gaps in achievement,” she said in an interview Monday. “I’m convinced these programs are an effective tool to help close those gaps.”

While Massachusetts often tops other states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams, the Commonwealth has among the widest achievement gaps in the nation, the report said.

Benson said she was optimistic the Legislature would embrace more funding, noting that lawmakers increased the line item this year for after-school and summer programs by 22 percent.

One potential revenue stream the report highlighted for future funding is taxes from cannabis sales. The report also said the state and local school systems should tap more federal funding.

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The report includes other recommendations too, such as increasing the quality of after-school programs by providing staff with more training and expanding partnerships with local organizations to provide more programs.

That latter recommendation, however, highlights another divide in the state, the report noted. While many urban districts can tap nonprofits within their communities, rural districts largely lack those kinds of partners in their areas, putting their low-income students at more of a disadvantage. Those districts also often lack a critical mass of students to qualify for a number of grant programs. “The Commonwealth should create new funding streams that increase access to rural and underserved areas of the state,” the report said.

The report has been five years in the making.

“The recommendations made in this report will help solidify Massachusetts’ status as a national leader in education, both in and out of school,” said Ardith Wieworka, chief executive of the Massachusetts Afterschool Partnership, in a statement. “Let’s rise to meet this challenge head-on for all of our children, regardless of their ethnic, racial, or income status and provide the equal opportunity for all that we aspire to achieve.”

Benson said she hopes Massachusetts will make after-school programming a big priority like California has. To help in that effort, the report recommends creating an after-school czar, who would be based in the Executive Office of Education.

Sarah Link, a vice president at the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, said if the recommendations are implemented, they could improve the life trajectory for many low-income students.

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“Access for low-income students is a real problem,” said Link, a council member.

“From our perspective, we have always held the belief that school systems can’t do it alone. To help young people thrive, it takes partners and a community.” The United Way partners with about 170 organizations on after-school programs, including an effort in Boston to expand over the next five years after-school math, science, and engineering programs to all middle school students. Currently about 10 percent of those students have that opportunity. A federal grant is aiding the expansion.

A growing body of research has been building the case that after-school and summer programs can propel students ahead academically, rather than idling away those hours with not much to do.

For instance, a 2007 study by a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University, who traced the academic performance of hundreds of Baltimore students, found that by the ninth grade, more than half of the achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers was because of the vast differences in summer experiences.

Senator Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat who cochairs the council, said out-of-school programs can help students boost their grades and their chances of earning a high school diploma and a college degree. “It’s a worthy cause everyone can rally behind.”


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.

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