By Amy Gold
Aaron Dworkin of ASAS talks about the out-of-school education his organization offers low-income, urban middle school students across the country.
The national youth advisory board of the After-School All-Stars, which provides programming to low-income middle school students, meets each year in the nation’s capital at the All-Star University, which focuses on leadership and community issues.
Service learning is one of the four foundational cornerstones of ASAS, along with exposure to financial literacy and careers, the importance of staying in school, and health and fitness. As part of another program area, certain students spend a summer week on one of 10 college campuses, living in dorms and learning, for example, why graduating from high school is important.
Aaron Dworkin, president of the national network of ASAS chapters, will be a panelist at the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference on May 19. He explained the structure of the organization’s after-school, school-based programming, which takes place in Title I schools across the country.
“All our programs take place at school sites and we try to become as fully integrated with the school community as possible,” he tells U.S. News in an interview. “Our typical program is three hours a day, five days a week.”
“The first hour is academic [and] it very much aligns with the school’s priorities,” he explains. “The second hour could be all health and fitness,” while the third hour is comprised of enrichment classes: “art, music, you name it, STEM, robotics, coding.”
The organization has programs that focus on its national curriculum priorities: “Sports as a Hook” (health and fitness), “We Are Ready” (staying in school), “Career Exploration Opportunities” or “CEO” (workplace professionalism skills) and “Life Service Action” (leadership/service learning). “Our kids, in many ways, are beneficiaries of a charity; they’re raising money and awareness and doing all these [projects],” Dworkin says.
The rest of his interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, is below.
Why focus on middle school?
The reason we focus on this age range is twofold. One is, this is actually quite an underserved population, age range, in terms of programming. There’s a lot of out-of-school time, after-school programs for elementary school kids … and high schools have a lot of extra-curricular activities, teams, clubs. But, middle school, precisely when kids are big enough to walk home by themselves, possibly get into trouble, make bad choices, for whatever reason, that’s when all the parents say, “All right, I’ll leave you alone, you get home by yourself.”
So, on the one hand, it’s underserved, on the other hand, it’s this age when people are between 11 and 14 that, and there’s a lot of research to back this up, people are changing, growing, [there’s] puberty, you’re trying to figure out who you are and you’re trying to make a lot of life choices.
We work with low-income urban kids and that’s the age when you might see pre-teens … experiment[ing] with drugs, … they might join gangs, … fall in with the wrong kids … . And, the high school dropout crisis … even though we’re making strides in alleviating that, a lot of, the majority of kids that do drop out, the research shows from Johns Hopkins [University] that a lot of those kids dropped out in ninth grade. In terms of an intervention point, middle school was a good age when you want to reach kids. Actually, if you want to reach kids in ninth grade, it’s almost a little too late. … A lot of lifelong habits … positive habits that you would want for young people, actually take hold in the middle school years. … Even though it’s not the perfect age to pick a career for the rest of your life, it is the right time and age when you can actually start planting the seeds for careers.
How do you decide in which cities to open new chapters?
In part, we have a big expansion kick thanks to a big investment we have from New York Life Foundation. They’re a huge national corporation. They have made, by the way, middle school after-school their Number One philanthropic priority. … For the last three years, they gave us a multimillion-dollar investment to open six new chapters in six markets. So, in part, it’s about need.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of demand for our programs and need in a lot of big urban school districts. That is our model, to be in a big urban center. In part, we do that because we need a lot of resources for our program which … connects our kids to a lot of opportunities and places that have a lot of museums, universities and cultural institutions. Those are things that play into our model and experiential field trips. On top of that, you need a community that’s going to help support it after your seed funding runs out.
So we have to look at all that. Is there a need for the program? Do we have partners there to work with? … We look at all these different metrics. Do we have allies, the mayor’s support, the governor’s support? Does the school district support us? Is there a lot of competition? Are there lots of groups already?
These are kids who everyone tells them to go to college, yet they’ve never actually visited a college. They kind of can’t even imagine what that means. It doesn’t even occur to them sometimes that their teachers went to college. It’s just a real powerful, culminating experience for them and it’s right on the transition point. It’s that summer before they go to high school, so if you’re all wondering, “Why does high school matter? Why should I take my classes seriously?” This is like a great, last intervention point and it’s been very successful.
One of the things we often do there is we are able clearly to have many more hours with the kids, but we’re also able to bring in different layers of mentors. We’ll have successful high school students – rising seniors – come; they’ll be like our counselors in training. We have these college students from a great group. We work with a center called the Posse Foundation. … They have first-generation college students, minority students that they support and so then we hire them to be our counselors to our kids and then we have a lot of other groups [and] professionals, come in.
Our kids can see what success looks like at any stage. … Sometimes there’s a disconnect when you talk to a 13 year old. They’ll meet the CEO of a big company, but there’s a 30-year [age] difference. It’s not clear how does one go from middle school to that, so you’ve got to … give them examples of people who look like them from their neighborhoods, who can say, “This is the key here. I was like you; this is what I had to do.”
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