Ways of Seeing: After-school programming is key

On October 4, Holly Morehouse, director of the VT After-School Network, was honored for her work and vision with the $15,000 Con Hogan Award for Entrepreneurial Leadership. During the acceptance ceremony, she delivered an eye opening perspective on the importance of out-of-school programs.
She painted a picture of this “third space for learning” (the first two are the family and the school) as a critical arena in which children can explore their passions and interests at a leisurely pace surrounded by the loving and skilled attention of our communities. The space might be a local theatre group, a sports team, a boys and girls club, a church youth group, a volunteer setting, formal after-school program, or other intentional setting.
Vermonters have long given a nod to the need for safe and structured after-school programs as a support for working families and many are familiar with statistics showing that the after-school hours are the time young people are most likely to engage in risky behavior, misuse substances, initiate sexual activity or become part of the criminal justice system. But Holly helped us to understand that the third space is far more than a custodial setting that keeps children out of trouble. It is here that many young people find and hone the attitudes, skills, and interpersonal relationships that will carry them into successful work, family, and community lives.
She spoke of her recent visit to Finland, whose children consistently “top the charts” for tests of academic achievement, despite school lasting only four hours a day and having no homework. It is attributed to the presence, in every town, of a community center for youth; and the expectation that every child will find and develop a hobby that brings them deep satisfaction.
This supportive interplay of family, school, and community life allows children to know they are loved, supported, respected and expected to become thriving members of the community. The work of creating the policies and places that make this possible brings the adults in the community closer.
The next day I traveled to New York in time to pick up our grand daughter from pre-K. Ramona’s school is spotless, filled with light and totally welcoming to families. It includes a supervised gym (for early drop-off or late pick-up to meet the needs of working parents), a full time art teacher, and meals provided for all children. The curriculum is project based.
This stunningly beautiful space, filled with joyfully engaged children and adults reminded me of the schools in Reggio-Emilia, Italy. Those schools were created by parents and educators in the wake of WWII to “Assure that our children will grow up to be creative, thoughtful citizens who will never again fall prey to the forces of fascism.”
Most Americans who have visited Reggio-Emilia said such schools would never be possible in this country because the culture is so different. Yet here is New York City, doing just that, not just in one school, but in all five boroughs, for all four-year-old children (and next year they will expand to include all three year olds.) The programs mirror the hours and days of the school year for older brothers and sisters. They are rewriting the future of many children and families who might otherwise be trapped in poverty and oppressive circumstances.
I have long been proud of Vermont’s record for supporting children and families, but Holly’s talk and visiting Ramona’s school has opened my eyes to how differently Vermont could be supporting our children and families. If we could open our hearts, our communities, and our policies to embrace all children, we would not only be giving them an excellent start in life, we would also be strengthening our communities and our democracy. I’m committed to working on that and hope you might contact me if you would like to help.
Cheryl Mitchell is president of Treleven, a retreat and learning program located on her family’s sheep farm in Addison County. She does freelance consulting on issues related to children, families, social policy and farm to community work. Cheryl can be contacted at [email protected].

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