by Jeff Cole, Network Lead, Beyond School Bells
Engaging, playful, inspiring, purposeful, youth-centered, hopeful, fun – the future of afterschool and summer learning in Nebraska is bright.
That is the overarching takeaway from the first-ever Nebraska ELO Innovation Invitational. Nebraska Children’s Beyond School Bells (BSB) program, our statewide afterschool and summer learning network, in partnership with the Nebraska Department of Education and Nebraska Extension, convened this dynamic gathering of approximately 260 afterschool and summer (what we call Expanded Learning Opportunities or ELOs) educators and advocates from across Nebraska and eight other states at UNL’s Innovation Campus March 7-9.
The Nebraska ELO Innovation Invitational combined a mix of short keynotes followed by topic specific deep dives and workshop on important topics related to high-quality, cost-efficient and locally sustainable ELO programs. The BSB team also facilitated play-based activities throughout the conference as well as field learning experiences at the Nebraska State Capitol and The Bay / Bay High, Lincoln Public Schools’ newest focus program.
Watch the video recap of the Innovation Invitational.
Day One centered the conference on Innovation and the lessons the pandemic taught about equity and access that will influence future developments in Nebraska’s ELO sector. Whyspeople’s Dr. Tony Smith, formerly Illinois’ Superintendent of Education, kicked off the Invitational with a keynote focusing on the role of ELO programs in expanding opportunity for engaging, hands on learning to all youth. “Talent,” reminded Smith, “is widespread; opportunity is not.” Dr. Smith was joined on the stage by Nebraska’s recently retired Commissioner of Education Dr. Matt Blomstedt for a lunchtime conversation, facilitated by Nebraska Children’s Director of Strategic Initiatives Dr. Marquisha Frost, focusing on the lasting impact of the pandemic on education and how hands-on, engaging ELO programs, both in Nebraska and nationally, can help reengage youth in a joy for learning.
Another Day one highlight was a kick-off evening dinner presentation, facilitated by Nebraska college students, sharing insights gained from a youth brainstorming process asking 150+ Nebraska youth in four urban and rural communities to identify components they would like to see more of in their community’s afterschool and summer programs.
BSB is partnering with the Nebraska Department of Education to provide school-based summer programs participating in the ESSER III grant program with $1 million in additional federal and private funds to make these youth ideas a reality this summer in school-age programs across the state that were especially hard hit by the pandemic.
Dr. Tony Burrow, Associate Professor of psychology at Cornell University, explored the role of ELO programs in cultivating a sense of purpose in youth to start off Day Two of the Invitational. Having purpose, according to a growing body of research shared by Dr. Burrow, is predictive of a range of positive benefits – including health, longevity, financial security and even attractiveness. The good news is that cultivating purpose seems to be something ELO programs can do. In a workshop following his presentation, the Cornell team shared emerging strategies on how staff can help cultivate purpose in youth in their ELO programs. Dr. Burrow wrapped up his time in Lincoln with a presentation at his alma mater, Lincoln High School, where he shared with students his purposeful journey from Lincoln High’s basketball courts to Cornell’s ivy-covered campus.
The importance of play to healthy youth development was a recurring theme throughout the Invitational. Beginning with a presentation on the research base behind play facilitated by Dr. Helen Raikes, a professor emeritus of Early Childhood Education at UNL and her colleagues at the University’s Early Childhood training center, themes of movement and play were featured daily. This included an ongoing demonstration of CityBuild2040, BSB’s play-based experience designed to encourage young people to envision and build (from cardboard and recycled materials) the cities they will govern when they are the adults running their community. While having fun, participating youth are exposed to basic design and engineering principles and are learning about the careers that power cities.
Day Two’s lunchtime presentation focused on the recent book, Of Boys and Men, by policy analyst Richard Reeves. This timely book brings much needed attention to the growing body of data showing that males are increasingly underperforming their female peers in just about every indicator of success in school and in life. In table conversations following a 15-minute video and a “critical conversation” session that followed, participants discussed their perspectives on Dr. Reeve’s thesis and explored opportunities ELO programs have to reengage boys in learning. Modeled on our participation in the national Million Girls Moonshot’s successful Girls in STEM initiative, during an afternoon workshop BSB shared a new boy-facing club concept, “Crash Course,” designed specifically to engage middle school boys in ELO programs.
The final half-day focused on Hope. Nebraska is blessed to be the home of the Gallup Organization and the Clifton Strengths Institute at UNL, which includes Hope as a major research strand. Dr. Tim Hodges, the Institute’s Executive Director, summarized research on the important role hope plays in life and shared insights on how thorough simple questions and careful attention, ELO professionals can help cultivate a greater sense of hope in the youth they serve.
Flowing out of this keynote, we included workshops on the role of mentorships in helping youth develop hope and how ELO programs can be a base for expanding adult mentorship opportunities to all Nebraska youth. Another aspect of mentorship explored throughout the conference was the need to engage high school youth as afterschool program staff. This strand, important for long-term sustainability in staff-challenged afterschool programs across the state, has numerous advantages – creating opportunities for near-peer mentorships, inserting youthful energy and know how into ELO programs, and exposing high school students to future careers in education.
Despite the end of the Invitational, our work facilitating these important conversations continues. Over the months ahead we will be revisiting some of the conference’s key themes, such as Innovation, Purpose and Equity, during monthly deep dive webinars this spring and summer. We hope these additional learning opportunities will continue to provide Nebraska’s ELO advocates and practitioners opportunities to engage with their peers nationally on cutting edge topics shaping the future of ELO and, by extension, help improve outcomes for Nebraska’s youth, their families and their communities.
For more info about the first Nebraska ELO Innovation Invitational, click here.
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