Using PBL, OST Programs, to Fight Chronic Absence

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The beginning of a new school year is a great time to reflect on the relationship between afterschool programs and in-school performance. Studies have linked participation in OST programs with academic success and the development of crucial “soft skills,” like communication and collaboration. Project-Based Learning, with its emphasis on teamwork and youth leadership, is an especially valuable tool to build these skills.

However, participation in afterschool programs also promotes more immediate and fundamental safety goals. “Research shows that the hours that children spend hanging out on street corners are a better predictor of school failure than race or class,” argues David L. Kirp, Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. In Philadelphia, as in many communities throughout the country, city-funded OST programs rely on prevention dollars from the Department of Human Services, not the School District.

One way that afterschool programs can fulfill both an education mission and a health and safety mission is to work with school administrators to combat chronic absenteeism. Chronic absence has been tied to underperformance in reading and mathematics by younger students. In Chicago, by the 9th grade attendance was a better predictor of graduation than test scores. Likewise, there is a strong relationship between health indicators – like poor nutrition, physical inactivity, asthma, and aggression – and absenteeism. More generally, studies show young people are at the greatest risk during unsupervised time.

OST providers, in collaboration with school officials, can work to reduce absenteeism and promote the safety and welfare of program participants. By sharing attendance data, schools and OST programs can work together to track attendance patterns. Additionally, OST providers often operate smaller programs and are able to cultivate relationships with students and their families. Frequent personal communications with program participants can build an important connection to the school community that will discourage routine absences.

Most importantly, by offering engaging programming, driven by student choice, OST programs create strong incentives for attendance. In middle and high school programs, this is often achieved by implementing a club model that permits each student to personalize his or her programming day. Unlike the more regimented school day, afterschool programs speak directly to students’ interests by allowing them to choose their own schedule.

Project-based learning is particularly conducive to individualized scheduling. In any given project, each student may complete different activities and arrive at a different learning outcome. Giving students the freedom to explore their own interests is an effective pedagogical method, but also a way to promote attendance and retention of students.

As you prepare for the beginning of the school year and plan your first PBL project, it is important to strive for rigorous activities that incorporate new academic content. But remember, the first step is to get the kids in the door.

Special thanks to Tom Sheaffer, the Director of Policy and Evaluation at the Deputy Mayor’s Office of Health and Opportunity, for the Powerpoint presentation. For more information about chronic absence in schools, see here.

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