The 85 percent solution

at a recent MassINC board meeting, we were discussing the achievement gap between students from wealthy versus poor school districts and how best to shrink it. I found myself saying things I’ve been thinking about for years: Is expanded funding for the traditional school day the best way to gain better outcomes for students? Is it possible that we’ve seen all the dramatic improvements we might see from the Commonwealth’s commitment to educational reform? Shouldn’t we be turning our attention to other factors that influence our kids’ ability to learn and achieve, especially where the achievement gap still exists?

I’m no education expert, but I’ve had a ringside seat to one of the most radical public education experiments in the nation. I was a young legislative aide for the state representative from Chelsea when the voice of the unconventional, Boston University’s John Silber, talked to us about transforming education in our community. What transpired over the next two decades is a tremendous success story that, paradoxically, has me wondering whether a further investment in our schools will produce the best bang for our next buck.

Dr. Silber and his heady scholars turned Chelsea’s schools inside out. They updated and coordinated curriculum; dispatched underperforming teachers and offered regular training to others; and constructed new schools. When the BU/Chelsea Partnership closed last year, I was there as city manager to thank Dr. Silber and BU for developing a top-notch educational “infrastructure.” The experiment was deemed a success, as Chelsea’s kids have outpaced, in many instances, their peers in similar urban environments. Ah, but there’s the caveat: “Similar urban environments” is code for “schools that cannot compare to the suburbs.”

After years of increased funding, tougher standards, and, in many cases, transformational leadership, educational gains like those in Chelsea have been made across Massachusetts at all levels, but the achievement gap still exists. Maybe paraphrasing an old campaign ad might be in order: “Education, it can’t just be about the schools anymore.”

Today’s achievement gap may no longer relate to what happens between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., Monday through Friday, 180 days a year. Should underperforming districts that have followed the state’s programmatic standards be stigmatized when standardized test scores are announced? After all, they only have their kids 15 percent of the time, and they have no control over what happens to those kids 85 percent of the time — after they leave school.

Numerous studies, as well as champions like Chris Gabrieli and his Massachusetts 2020 project, indicate that we need to focus more on after-school programming, especially for children from poorer districts. “The research indicates that children from high-risk backgrounds have both the most to gain from after-school programs in terms of educational opportunity and the least access to [them],” wrote Lee Shumow, of Northern Illinois University, on the website of the Education Resources Information Center. I didn’t need that research, though, to tell me we’re not doing enough to give at-risk kids the resources necessary for them to compete with their suburban peers.

i’m a suburban dad, married to a suburban mom, and we both work long and hard before we get home to begin our next job: being suburban parents, or, as my oldest would call us, “homework Nazis.” And before and after homework, we’re paying for guitar lessons, taking our kids on trips, nurturing their interests in reading, and worrying that we’re not doing enough.

Unfortunately, the same is not happening in high-risk communities, and, dare I suggest, it’s not all the parents’ fault. If there are two parents in a household — a big if — they’re often working their second jobs and struggling with so much more, including their own educational deficiencies. Even if parents are able to overcome those burdens, they then face the daunting task of dealing with what their kids are learning on the streets, where negative influences are plentiful, powerful, and persistent. So, when kids spend the non-school 85 percent of their time in such settings, doesn’t it follow that they’ll suffer academically? If we value what our suburban kids do after school, why aren’t we promoting more opportunities for kids in places where achievement still lags?

In Chelsea, we’ve recognized that what happens after school is as important as what happens in school. With support from the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Community Health Improvement, the Hyams Foundation, and others, we created REACH (Reach, Explore, Achieve in Chelsea), an ambitious after-school program focused on school success and career preparation. REACH cultivates the academic aptitude of seventh- to 10th-graders, while increasing their social, emotional, and cultural development. Isn’t the entire development process critical to academic achievement? I think so.

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Gov. Deval Patrick seemingly agrees. Yet, while his commitment to student achievement means there will be no immediate school aid cuts, he’s shelved (hopefully, not for long) broad educational initiatives, including extending the school day. And even in Chelsea, an after-school believer, we spend one penny on after-school activities for every dollar we spend on traditional education.

Should federal stimulus money for education make it to Massachusetts, and certainly as state and local officials continue to discuss improving achievement, I hope we can fight the temptation to invest in “just” 15 percent of our kids’ time, and instead find more of the wherewithal to address what happens in the other 85 percent. With or without stimulus money, we need more after-school funding, be it to extend the school day or to provide community-based organizations with the resources to undertake prevention and intervention activities for kids and their families. Only through challenging convention, and promoting a holistic approach that treats the entire day as an opportunity for nurturing and learning, can we give every child of the Commonwealth the foundation upon which achievement becomes achievable.

Jay Ash is the city manager in Chelsea.