Calmer Waters and Brighter Horizons: GetConnected 2022 Welcomes Over 400 Afterschool Learning Leaders and a Heightened Awareness of Expanded Learning 

Nebraska Children and Families Foundation is dedicated to weathering the storm. Although these storms come and go, one thing remains for certain within uncertainty: together, with your support, we can continue to stay afloat and redirect ourselves during rough weather. 

Beyond School Bells, our afterschool network of dedicated statewide professionals has truly done an incredible job of remaining buoyant during difficult times. For the third time since the pandemic, the team and their partners, the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE), NDE’s 21st Century Community Learning Center, and Nebraska Extension rescheduled GetConnected 2022, their statewide conference of afterschool learning leaders, and on Feb. 25, it was finally able to happen! 

This year’s GetConnected began with an emotional bang. Approximately 450 statewide afterschool learning leaders finally got together in person at Omaha’s CHI Health Center and virtually for the first time since 2019 to revel in an entire day of workshops, networking, Walk N Talks, and the 2022 Book Club launch.  

GetConnected, however, isn’t just a one-day networking event – the mission and effects of afterschool are far-reaching. According to our partners, Afterschool Alliance, data shows that Nebraska and the greater U.S. show a desperate need for afterschool programming, although availability and barriers remain present. 

Moreover, our partners’ America After 3 pm report shows that afterschool keeps kids learning, safe and engaged, especially during afternoons and evenings when they are most likely to get into trouble. 

Finally, Beyond School Bells and partners have constantly proven, time and time again, the myriad other benefits that Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELOs) provide. From giving K-12 students a chance to engage in STEM, robotics, and podcasting to supporting UNL students and former foster youth with paid, career-building experiences, these initiatives prove how much afterschool, like Nebraska Children, creates positive change! 

 So, as we reflect on GetConnected 2022, we realize that this event is neither a one-off nor a single third and lucky attempt; this conference confirms afterschool professionals’ dedication to creating safe, engaging spaces for children and young adults. 

Beyond School Bells’ Network Lead, Jeff Cole expressed his appreciation that he finally reunited face-to-face with his colleagues!   

“[Planning and rescheduling GetConnected] was a long slog, to say the least,” said Jeff in regard to having to twice cancel the conference due to the pandemic.  

“We knew, however, how important it was for afterschool professionals to have the opportunity to come together to share their passion for afterschool and summer learning,” he said.  

Sure enough, BSB and partners’ tenacity paid off. Jeff said that he and his fellow leaders experienced relief and excitement at reuniting.  

“It was great to see so many people together again. Strangely, [I] seem to have gotten used to working in isolation, so it was nice to reconnect with our community!” He said.  

As Jeff delivered the opening remarks, he commented that being around everyone again for the first time in years evoked an emotional response. 

If we can name something positive to emerge from the pandemic, we’d have to acknowledge the amplified awareness and investment in ELOs. Happily, the conference revealed Nebraska’s intensified support for quality afterschool and summer learning. 

Jeff agrees. 

“We’ve entered a time where we have a far greater appreciation for the role that ELO programs play in supporting children, families, and communities across the state,” he said. 

“During the pandemic, a great deal of learning took place outside of the traditional classroom and school day. Learning does happen every day and all the time. Post-COVID, those lessons learned [of afterschool] will lead to expansion, as more communities [will] start to build afterschool and summer programs to meet pressing needs to reengage youth learning,” he said.  

Jeff said that Beyond School Bells will continue to forge strong new and existing partnerships throughout the state to meet families’ needs.  

“In addition, we’ll ask existing programs to serve more youth and provide conduits for other important services that became so apparent during COVID,” he said.  

As the event unfolded, this passion for ELOs became increasingly apparent. At the lunch ceremony, we and our event co-sponsors, the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE), NDE’s 21st Century Community Learning Center, and Nebraska Extension, honored the incredible people behind the many faces of afterschool.   

This pivotal moment occurred when we honored our partners, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services’ (NEDHHS) steadfast support for our state’s school-aged afterschool learning and care programs! We showed our appreciation in the name of a remarkable man gone but forever remembered for his contributions to education and expanded learning: Bob Whitehouse.  

With that, we presented the 2022 Regent Emeritus Bob Whitehouse Expanded Learning Opportunity (ELO) Policy Champion Award to Child Care Fund Administrator Nicole Vint, who accepted the award on behalf of NEDHHS.   

Still, there were more recognitions to come! We presented the Nebraska ELO Innovator Award to Norfolk Public Schools’ afterschool program, Aftershock, and Rabble Mill/The Bay! This recognition represents volumes of appreciation for our afterschool partners.  

Throughout the pandemic, these programs continued to amaze us with their agility as they adapted their learning experiences to an ever-changing time. Despite the curveballs, these afterschool learning leaders engaged and served young people with youth-focused outdoor education experiences, skateboarding programs, entrepreneurship and take-home science kit experiences, podcasting opportunities, and more!  

We can’t wait to see what these hardworking leaders will do next.  

Jeff said many new afterschool leaders inspired him with their already-impactful efforts to create high-quality learning experiences.   

“I loved seeing new frontline staff members working in programs around the state,” said Jeff. “[These new leaders are] bringing fresh energy and ideas to our work!”  

In addition, participants had the opportunity to do a “Walk N Talk.”  

Throughout this time, afterschool professionals wandered throughout various stations, engaged, and connected with cutting-edge afterschool and summer learning partners throughout Nebraska.  

Best of all, these partners are committed to providing expanded learning enhancements with either free or affordable resources ranging from lesson plans, supplies, professional development opportunities, and virtual events. 

Some of the Walk N Talk statewide partners included the Nebraska Alliance for Conservation and Environment Education (NACEE), the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and Nebraska Agriculture in the Classroom, to name a few. 

We were impressed by the quality, cost-effective environmental education resources that these partners offer. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, for example, boasts a group of passionate educators that infuse afterschool programs with everything from science learning experiences to outdoor activities to knowledge.   

The Nebraska Alliance for Conservation and Environment Education, which promotes educational knowledge throughout the state, also delivers a series of stimulating expanded learning resources ranging from providing instructors for ELOs to developing professionals around topics such as environmental education.  

In addition, everyone had a ball through hybrid in-person and virtual workshops and breakout sessions. The events were education-packed, focusing on topics including, “Not just a ‘Slice of the Pie:’ The Whole Child Approach.”  

Led by Claire Brown and Claudia Granillo, the workshop encouraged us to approach children and youth mental health as integral to their well-being. In the past, although some have viewed mental health as part of the larger whole, the Whole Child, Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child Model (WSCC), encouraged us to take a holistic approach. 

Finally, we used the conference podium to launch a brainstorming phase of a new Nebraska initiative, Best Summer Ever! This 2022 campaign will create a series of community-driven initiatives that deliver transformative summer-learning opportunities for Nebraska children and youth. We can’t wait to see what these memories will be made of as we edge close to the summer. 

Meanwhile, while we sail into calmer post-pandemic waters, Beyond School Bells looks forward to more upcoming projects, collaborations, and initiatives, including a deeper partnership with the NDE to facilitate new and expand existing afterschool and summer programming across the state.   

Jeff gave us a sneak preview, but you can sign up for BSB’s eNews to tap into their never-ending list of resources and events.  

“We’re especially looking forward to pulling this group of afterschool professionals together on September 16 in Kearney,” said Jeff in regard to the next GetConnected event.  

Neither can we.  

As Nebraska Children and Beyond School Bells move into calmer waters, we can feel more the smooth sailing every day. That said, we know that no matter what may come, thanks to your support, we and our partners can weather the storm.  

Find out more about Beyond School Bells 

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Nebraska Children and Families Foundation supports children, young adults and families at risk with the overall goal of giving our state's most vulnerable kids what they need to reach their full potential. We do this by building strong communities that support families so their children can grow up to be thriving, productive adults.

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