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Welcome to the EPFP Alumni Blog! Here we highlight the work of EPFP alumni around the country by featuring guest blog posts about our three pillars: Policy, Leadership, and Networking. For more information or to report abuse of this feature, please contact the EPFP national program staff at

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Cross-Boundary Leader: Bela Shah Spooner (NY EPFP 99-00)

Posted By Shaina Cook, Thursday, July 21, 2016
Updated: Thursday, July 7, 2016


Cross-Boundary Leader

Bela Shah Spooner 
NY EPFP 99-00

Bela Shah Spooner is the program manager for expanded learning in the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families at the National League of Cities (NLC). For over a decade, she has been at NLC helping to inform municipal officials about the importance of afterschool and summer learning opportunities. She launched NLC’s Afterschool Policy Advisors Network (APAN) in 2005, which has grown to include more than 400 cities, and has provided technical assistance to more than 40 cities focusing on building citywide systems of afterschool programs. She has also authored Cities and Statewide Afterschool Networks Partnering to Support Afterschool Programs and NLC’s 2011 report, Municipal Leadership Afterschool: Citywide Approaches Spreading across the Country.

Prior to NLC, Spooner worked for the Coalition for Community Schools at the Institute for Educational Leadership and co-wrote the Coalition report, Making the Difference: Research and Practice in Community Schools.

Why Afterschool Programs are Important to City Leaders

A huge part of our work at NLC is to not only help our members—elected city officials and senior city staff—understand their role in creating more afterschool programs, but also to help other partners like school districts better understand the role that cities can play in these efforts. We know that kids spend only a fraction of their time in school, so we use that message to communicate how they can use the rest of the hours of the day to support students.

Many city leaders have become champions for afterschool and summer learning programs because they understand that they’re also responsible for the children and youth in their city in the out-of-school time hours and it’s a great opportunity for city leaders to get involved and support young people. One of the major factors that has led to greater involvement of city leaders is public safety. Data shows that between 3 and 6 pm, there are higher levels of crime committed to and by kids. City leaders recognize that quality afterschool programs can keep kids safe and engaged in learning, and reduce crime in the community. They also understand the broader implications that afterschool programs bring, academic and otherwise, to their cities. Local leaders are particularly supportive of increasing academic achievement because of the great impact it has on communities around jobs and economic development, and supporting working families.

City leaders are also becoming more aware of the resources that are available to support kids in their communities. Many cities are already investing in infrastructure and programming to support youth in multiple ways, such as libraries and parks and recreation, so it’s not a far reach to get them more involved in supporting afterschool learning initiatives. A challenge we see is that departments and activities within city governments are often siloed, so efforts that touch young people are happening but are not coordinated in a streamlined way to maximize impact.

Serving Young People in Different Areas

We know there are a lot of afterschool and youth-focused programs in communities but they are not necessarily distributed in a way that is accessible to young people. In many cases, demographics and income distribution in cities shift over time and change to the point where the existing infrastructure is no longer as effective as it once was. To address these challenges, we work with cities to begin with a mapping process to get a visual of where programs, schools, and kids are located, as well as where there are areas of high poverty, crime, and teen pregnancy. This allows cities to identify barriers, such as public transportation gaps or new highways that have made it difficult for young people to access different parts of town. Mapping helps to clarify the misconception of why needs aren’t being met when there may be services available in the community—sometimes, they just aren’t accessible to the people who need them and honestly, many parents don’t even have access to the information of where those programs may be. When more resources and partners come together during the mapping process, it helps provide a better sense of where to target resources and efforts to fill the gaps.

The Role of Students, Families, and Communities in Expanding Afterschool

One way for students, families, and community members to be involved is to track the campaigns and priority issues of elected city officials to better understand where they are coming from—figure out how to talk about the issue in a way that will resonate for them. In our case, we’ve found success in approaching it from a public safety and economic development lens. We also encourage mayors to use their convening authority to bring together community stakeholders to keep them informed on what is happening in their city.

Providers and their supporters have a unique role in that they can present information on their programs and develop relationships with the mayor’s office and city council in a number of ways. In addition to participating in community meetings and spreading the word about their work among community members, one of the best ways they can engage city leaders is to simply invite them to their program. Mayors and city councilmembers enjoy opportunities to engage with their community members, especially young people. Providing them with photo opportunities and positive press, and getting them to your program to interact with young people is a great way to showcase their work and give credit to elected officials for supporting what they do. In short, it’s all about relationship building. If afterschool is important to you or you’re a provider, you can position yourself as the mayor’s go-to person for that type of work.

Cross-Boundary Leadership and Challenges

So many stakeholders in the community have their own interests in supporting young people, from public safety to economic development to quality of life, but they all have the same broad focus: helping kids be successful. When you’re building a citywide or county-wide system, you have to think about the unlikely or unusual players that you want to bring into the conversation to make sure it’s comprehensive and representative of key voices and include people with influenceOne way to bring those people together is to speak their language to get your message across. Use their focus and interests to build the message that you share to get them involved in your cause. The mayor’s bully pulpit is a powerful tool for this, so bringing in city leaders can help bring in even more diverse resources and supports. The goal is to galvanize folks to invest time and money in your cause by building and leveraging relationships within your community.

Cross-boundary leadership can be challenging in a number of ways. Limited funding and resources is a challenge in many respects, from potential partners seeing each other as competition for competitive grants and organizations working on their priorities with limited resources to few funding streams available to allow good ideas to be carried out. Loss of autonomy over an area of work is another challenge, and providers and organizations can be hesitant to partner up because they will lose that control over their work and how it is carried out.

The important thing to remember when facing these challenges is that we’re all in this work for the same reason, and working together helps to create a stronger system to serve more kids. It communicates the collective benefit of everyone’s work and inspires people to come together for the greater good.

Leadership Lessons Learned

The biggest leadership lesson I’ve learned is to be confident in the knowledge and expertise you bring to the table. It can be intimidating to talk with mayors and other leaders who you see on TV or read about in the news, but it’s important to remember that you’re talking to someone who ran for office to represent their city and the people in it… and the youth are an essential part of the success and appeal of that city. Remember that you have direct knowledge and first-hand information (and perhaps even good data!) about the needs and challenges that a subsection of youth face in the city. What you know may be very valuable for a city official to hear and understand. Instead of getting caught up with titles and who someone is, you have to focus on the fact that you know what you’re talking about and it’s important for them to know about it as well if you’re trying to improve the odds for the children you work with. Present yourself as a partner to help and bring additional data and information if they request more and see where the conversation may go.

EPFP Experience

EPFP had a big influence on my professional career. When I was a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University I got pulled in to help run the New York site. It was so interesting to watch the process that the next year I asked if I could be a Fellow. The EPFP experience enhanced my graduate education experience, augmented the policy work I was interested in, and completely redirected my path. It was through EPFP that I met Mike Usdan, President of IEL at the time and now a senior fellow there . He saw the spark I had for federal education policy, and every time he saw me he encouraged me to move to DC and gave me opportunities to connect with people here.  That’s when I met Marty Blank and took an opportunity to support the Coalition for Community Schools. And many years later, I’m proud to now serve on its Steering Committee. EPFP gave me a basic framework of education policy but also exposure to a new world and potential job opportunities. It helped me look at issues from different angles and perspectives, and was a great way to start my professional career.

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Cross-Boundary Leader: Gay Kingman (DC EPFP 79-80)

Posted By Shaina Cook, Wednesday, July 20, 2016
Updated: Thursday, July 7, 2016


Cross-Boundary Leader

Gay Kingman (DC EPFP 79-80)

Gay Kingman (DC EPFP 79-80) is the executive director of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association (GPTCA) and the Coalition of Large Tribes. GPTCA—which is made up of tribal leaders from 16 sovereign nations from Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota—meets regularly to make administrative decisions and review legislation affecting all Tribal Governments. As the executive director, Gay manages GPTCA’s affairs, works with members of Congress, develops position papers and resolutions, works with the Administration, and coordinates with other tribes. As the leader of the Coalition of Large Tribes, she advocates for and protects the unique land, economic, jurisdictional, and funding issues faced by tribes with large land bases and populations.

Prior to her current roles, she served as a consultant for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and for the Tribal Leaders Project at Portland State University’s Hatfield School of Government. Gay’s previous roles include co-founder of Kingman-Wapato & Associates, associate at the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management, director of public relations and director of the Seminar Institute at the National Indian Gaming Association, and executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. She spent 25 years in the education field as a teacher and administrator, and was elected as president of the National Indian Education Association. During her time as an EPFP Fellow in Washington, DC, Gay was on the transition team that created the U.S. Department of Education under President Carter. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Institute for Tribal Government at Portland State University’s Hatfield School of Government.

Education in the GPTCA

The GPTCA addresses everything from health care to law enforcement to education for the member tribes. On the education front, we’re working on legislation with the Bureau of Indian Education, which manages tribal schools on reservations, where a majority of Indian students are enrolled in public school. We’ve taken official action that tribes will be in charge of their own schools and will determine their own accreditation and teacher education processes. Historically, the education system has not been the best for Indian students, so tribes are moving toward developing their own standards and practices for educating their students.

Tribal Government Leadership

In the Great Plains, our tribes have huge areas of land; in some cases, they’re bigger than Rhode Island or Connecticut. Tribal governments are full-service operations with their own health care, transportation, and education systems, and leadership is very important in all of those areas. Leadership styles may differ between tribes—some are small, some are big, and they all have their own unique needs and strengths—but leadership is critical to all of them. Tribal governments depend on strong leaders in order to run effectively, and government officials need to trust each other and work together in order to manage all of their systems.

In an effort to show the importance of leadership in tribal governments, I worked with the Institute for Tribal Government at Portland State University to develop a course in leadership with an emphasis on tribal leaders. Students viewed videos of tribal leaders talking about their experiences and then were able to pull out the leadership qualities that the tribal leaders exemplified. We wanted to show students how tribal governments worked and what was important to tribal leaders.

Cross-Boundary Leadership

Cross-boundary leadership is a big part of my role as executive director of GPTCA. We’re made up of 16 member tribes of different sizes, and part of my responsibilities is to bring them together and work with the tribal leaders on policies and legislation that are important to the member tribes. It involves working across different sectors that interact with each other, either directly or indirectly, to get the solutions that we need.

For example, my reservation is 180 miles long and many of our roads are poor, especially in inclement weather. This transportation issue affects many other sectors, including education, as school buses need to travel on our roads to get students to and from school. Leaders from both transportation and education have to work together in order to determine the best policy changes to improve our roads to make them safe and to allow our students to get to school throughout the year.

Leading across boundaries comes with its own set of challenges as well. A big part of my work involves working with members of Congress and other policymakers to share with them our perspective and encourage them to pass legislation that affects our tribes. It can sometimes be challenging to inform them about what life is like for us on reservations, or to educate them about common Native American stereotypes and help them to see beyond those. But working together to improve policies that impact our tribes is critical and I continue to create and build those relationships with leaders in Washington, DC.

Leadership Lessons Learned

One major thing that I gained from my participation in EPFP that it opened up a whole new world to me in Washington. I was able to better understand how the government worked and build paths that led to the Administration and Congress and the judiciary branch. Now that I’m in South Dakota, I know who to call and where to go to get assistance or create policy. It helped me understand the importance of a network and how all of the people and parts fit together.

Another leadership lesson I’ve learned is that you don’t always have to take what is first presented to you. If something doesn’t feel quite right, or you think it can be better, it’s worth it to speak up and make changes where they are necessary.

EPFP Experience

In addition to providing me with a better understanding of how the federal government worked, EPFP gave me the knowledge and foundation to interact with others in a policy setting. My career has changed drastically in many ways over the years—I spent 25 years in education before becoming a leader in Native American policy—and throughout all of it, I was able to build upon what I learned in EPFP to inform my work.



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Cross-Boundary Leader: M. Rene Islas (DC EPFP 01-02)

Posted By Shaina Cook, Tuesday, June 28, 2016


Cross-Boundary Leader

M. René Islas (DC EPFP 01-02)

M. René Islas (DC EPFP 01-02) is the executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), an organization that supports and develops policies and practices that encourage and respond to the diverse expressions of gifts and talents in children and youth from all cultures, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and socioeconomic groups. Prior to joining NAGC, Islas served as senior vice president of Learning Forward, where he launched the Center for Results to support leaders in education in developing systems to improve teacher effectiveness.

Islas has had a long career in education policy at the federal, state, and local levels, and has served as senior vice president of B&D Consulting, where he launched their K-12 education practice, and as special assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Education and chief of staff to the Assistant Secretary of Education in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Working with Gifted Children

My organization, the National Association for Gifted Children, supports and celebrates the gifts and talents of children and youth, but there are many misconceptions and stereotypes out there about these students. A common one is that gifted children can do everything on their own because they have above-average skills or ability in different areas, and many people assume that they will achieve their full potential just by being in a classroom. This isn’t the case; gifted children need to be supported, taught, and challenged to achieve, and not just left alone to do their work.

People also sometimes assume that giftedness doesn’t exist among every population of students, which leads to a lack of diversity among those that identified as gifted and participate in gifted and talented programs. There are many factors that play a part in some students not being identified as gifted: being overlooked by teachers and parents, cultural and linguistic barriers, and even assessment instruments that can sometimes not be 100 percent valid or reliable in identifying gifted students. To overcome this, we’re looking harder across the landscape to find talent among all populations through universal screenings and increased rigor for all students.

Improving Teacher Preparation and Professional Learning

In my role at the Learning Forward Center for Results, I focused on improving teacher preparation and professional learning and supports for effective instruction. Hands down, the most important factor in increasing student achievement is the teacher, so ensuring they are well prepared and have the supports they need to be successful will lead to the success of their students. My mentor, former Secretary of Education Rod Paige, said that student success is all about the interaction between students and their teachers. In fact, the job of everyone at a school, from bus drivers to janitors to attendance officers, is to make sure that interaction is optimal. And when teachers are at the top of their game in terms of content knowledge, preparation, and professional development, students will respond to that and grow in terms of their own learning and understanding of subjects.

The Policymaking Process

In my time at the U.S. Department of Education, I was able to experience the policymaking process firsthand. One of the biggest lessons I learned was that when you set high goals and expectations, you’ll get so much further than you expected. For example, when we set out to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the early 2000s, we focused on the line that ended up becoming the name of the law: No Child Left Behind. Some would argue that is unattainable—to ensure that no child is left behind academically—but we started out with that mission and let it guide us through the policymaking process.

Cross-Boundary Leadership and Challenges

Whenever we’re talking about equity in service of children, regardless of their backgrounds, we have to look at all of the various factors in their lives that influence success, whether that’s school, home life, their communities, or their health and well-being. Because those factors are in different areas, you have to be willing to work across those different sectors—education, social work, health—to truly make a difference. The principle of cross-boundary leadership that EPFP has always focused on is something that we as advocates and policymakers need to be sure we are doing every day.

That being said, there can be many challenges to leading across boundaries. One of the biggest barriers can be people’s beliefs. Individuals come to the table with their own beliefs that aren’t necessarily negative or intentionally hurtful, but by being kind and not addressing those differences, you can limit the potential or opportunities that children have. That’s why it’s important for us to work together across boundaries to find solutions to these institutional and cultural challenges that do exist. Leading across boundaries can help to change people’s beliefs or open their eyes to new ideas that can help to overcome these challenges.

Leadership Lessons Learned

A big blessing in my career has been having great mentors. I don’t think I could have progressed through my early career and had the opportunities that I did without those mentors. One of my mentors, Christopher Cross, sponsored me to participate in EPFP when he was CEO of the Center for Basic Education. He encouraged and believed in me and knew what I could accomplish, and he wanted to support the type of learning and development that EPFP provided. That experience led me to finding others who have been important parts of my career, like Henry Johnson, who is a North Carolina EPFP alum and still a close friend a mentor. EPFP, like many of my other roles, has allowed me to find mentors who have similar values as me, but who are also willing to challenge what I know and encourage me to do more.

EPFP Experience

When I was an EPFP Fellow, I was focusing on teacher effectiveness. EPFP gave me the opportunity to test my knowledge and thoughts about policy in a safe environment that encouraged me to explore and develop my opinions on a given topic with my cohort. EPFP also helped me create lasting relationships both in the general education space and in my area of interest. I can think of many friends I made through EPFP with whom I’ve stayed connected, whether it’s walking around town or speaking on a panel together.

I think EPFP really does achieve its objectives to help Fellows develop their understanding, knowledge, and expertise in policy, leadership, and networking. The program is especially great for those who want to get into education policy early in their career, because it gives them a strong base in those three areas and allows them to grow during the Fellowship but also flourish beyond it.



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Cross-Boundary Leader: Lars Johnson (MN EPFP 14-15)

Posted By Shaina Cook, Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Cross-Boundary Leader

Lars Johnson (MN EPFP 14-15)

Lars Johnson is a strategy fellow at Education Evolving and program director at the Labrador Foundation. At Education Evolving, his research is currently focused on identifying policy barriers to school innovation. At the Labrador Foundation, Lars leads a grantmaking program targeted at advancing innovative school designs and teacher leadership. Johnson attended the Minnesota New Country School, a teacher-powered charter school in rural Minnesota, and the experience inspired him to pursue a career in education policy. Prior to his education policy pursuits, Lars founded and led a software development consultancy, where he built apps and websites for think tanks, foundations, and government agencies.

Inspired by Teacher-Powered Schools

My own experiences in school had a huge influence on my life and my career. I attended a very traditional middle school, but the environment wasn’t good for me academically or socially. For high school, I attended a project-based, teacher-powered school, the Minnesota New Country School, where I was allowed and encouraged to direct my energy into the interests I had, which at the time were largely around music and computer programming. In retrospect, I see that the school model that worked so well for me had emerged because a group of teachers came together to figure out how to best serve their students. There was a direct link between the teacher-powered decision making at the school and the pedagogical experience that kept me so engaged.

A teacher-powered school is one where a collective group of teachers has real decision-making authority in at least one area of autonomy. At Education Evolving, we’ve identified 15 areas of autonomy, such as budget, curriculum, pedagogy, and recruitment, that educators at teacher-powered schools have a say in. This doesn’t mean these schools are big, unruly “autonomous collectives” where teachers reject leadership and principals altogether; it’s more of a shift in where the ultimate decision-making authority lies. In practice, many teacher-powered schools choose to have a principal or co-school leaders, similar to the way a law firm is led by a group of partners who choose a managing partner. Teacher-powered schools can be either charter or district schools—we see about a fifty-fifty split between the two—and teachers can gain and hold their collective autonomy in a number of ways, such as through a collective bargaining agreement or through a contract with their charter authorizer or district central office. We believe that groups of teachers should be the ultimate decision-making authority in schools because they’re in classrooms with students every day and understand students’ unique needs.

Improving the Quality of the Teaching Profession

I believe the most important issue in education policy today is the quality of the job of teaching, and whether talented young people perceive it as a potential career. Many leaders and policymakers are preoccupied with the “quality of teachers” but not the quality of teaching as a career, which has been a huge detriment to the profession. If teaching is seen as a scripted, assembly-line job (as it often is, especially in large urban districts), it will be difficult to recruit and retain the top-notch educators that students deserve. We need to raise the status of the profession as a whole and give educators more freedom to engage their students in the classroom.

We recently presented an award for advancements in research on teacher-powered schools to Richard Ingersoll at the University of Pennsylvania, who’s a leading expert on teacher retention and recruitment. His research identified the number one reason why teachers leave the classroom as the lack of professional autonomy over their roles and schools. We see this lack of power in data and our interactions with teachers quite often. Teacher-powered schools address this by giving teachers real authority; in turn, the teachers facilitate better learning for students. I think this is a big reason why we’ve seen this movement grow: teachers are fed up with accountability models where they are responsible for what they can’t control.

Federal Education Policy in Rural America

In 2015, I co-wrote a report on federal education policy in rural America. Implementing policy effectively in rural districts can be a challenge in a number of ways. For example, rural districts are often held to the same program application and reporting requirements as large urban districts, but they may have only one or two administrators in the office to handle all of the paperwork burdens of state and federal programs. In the report, we make the recommendation that rural districts be given consolidated reporting processes in which they can submit reports on multiple programs and grants through a central template. Another way to ease the administrative burden on rural districts would be to allow several to apply for competitive grants together as a team and share the reporting responsibilities among them.

Technology also has a special and important role to play in rural America. It can be difficult to recruit teachers and administrators or offer a diverse array of course options in more remote areas. One solution would be to offer more project-based learning or online learning opportunities when remote geographies make it difficult to bring in specialists in certain subject area. However, this is made difficult by the lack of broadband internet access in rural areas. This has improved over the last few years, but the lack of technology infrastructure still poses a challenge to providing diverse educational opportunities to rural students.

Cross-Boundary Leadership and Challenges

I think an important part of cross-boundary leadership is staying focused on the objectives at hand and setting aside labels and preconceived notions. For example, at Education Evolving, we work with teacher leaders from both the charter and district sectors of public education. Sometimes they carry negative narratives about each other, but we try to get everyone to focus on the end goal: giving teachers decision-making authority in schools so they can meet the unique needs of the students they serve. When teachers see that the sector in which a school lies doesn’t imply anything about teacher roles, or the school’s learning program, or the extent of positive student-teacher relationships, those borders and stereotypes seem to dissolve.

This example demonstrates some of the challenges presented in cross-boundary leadership. Working with a wide spectrum of stakeholders in the education sector has shown me how deeply ideological convictions are held by some individuals. Even in a field like public education, where positions don’t divide as neatly along party lines, convictions run deep, from the need for innovation versus the need to replicate what works to the importance of math and science versus the importance of the arts. Managing these different beliefs and finding a common ground can be challenging.

Leadership Lessons Learned

I think leadership is largely about associating with talented people who are pulling in the same direction as you are—and then knowing when to stay quiet and let work continue on its present course and when to speak up and nudge the wheel in a new direction. Leadership is less about being consistently active and more about knowing when to speak up. Ideally, every member of a team would possess leadership qualities, not just a single person.

EPFP Experience

My time as an EPFP Fellow was a wonderful opportunity to look into the work lives of people from all corners of the K-12 policy world. I think EPFP provides Fellows and alumni with exposure to new ideas, as well as networking opportunities with new people. In a world where so many of us get deep into particular tasks or issue areas in our jobs, it’s nice to step back and discuss K-12 at a more macro level with other invested, intelligent folks.



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Cross-Boundary Leader: Rachel Gwaltney (DC EPFP 11-12)

Posted By Shaina Cook, Monday, January 4, 2016


Cross-Boundary Leader

Rachel Gwaltney (DC EPFP 11-12)

Rachel Gwaltney is the Director of Policy and Partnerships at the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA), a national nonprofit organization focused on closing the achievement gap through high-quality summer learning for all children and youth. In this role, she leads development and implementation of services, projects, and partnerships that strengthen summer learning policy and build capacity of state and national leaders and organizations. Prior to joining NSLA, Gwaltney served as Chief of Programs for Higher Achievement, an organization that focuses on closing the opportunity gap for middle school youth. She has recently held roles at District of Columbia Public Schools, Data Quality Campaign, and Horizons National.

Summer Learning Awareness and Policy

NSLA encompasses a broad definition of summer learning activities; it can be anything from summer school and library programs to community-based organizations and parks and recreation programs. Our focus has been on improving quality, access, and demand for these programs through advocacy activities at the federal, state, and local levels. We also advance our mission through grassroots efforts, training, and technical assistance with program providers, which elevates the quality of summer learning efforts in the field.

My work centers on advocacy at the state and federal levels: helping policymakers understand the effect of summer learning on student achievement and success. For example, NSLA has developed and shared lots of research on the impact of summer learning programs on low-income students and communities, and how the achievement gap grows when youth don’t have equitable access to these types of programs.

Growing summer learning programs can be difficult because there is only one dedicated federal funding stream for afterschool learning, and it’s shared among multiple types of education providers (the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program). We believe it’s really important to keep investing in that funding stream at the federal level because it is a critical investment in equitable opportunities that schools and communities provide to their students. Even better, community-based entities often leverage that funding into additional private dollars and in-kind resources, all of which are invested into student success. We want policymakers to know that there is a huge demand for summer learning programs and we need more funding to continue working to meet that demand.

Summer Learning Partnerships

Partnerships are also an important part of making summer learning a priority. We’ve been working closely with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading to advance summer learning as a strategy to help kids stay on track with literacy and to reduce retention of students in third grade. We are seeing more programs incorporate STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) into their activities too, so finding partnerships to enhance quality and bring new resources to the field are important.

The programs and partnerships we represent go beyond just academics. NSLA’s mission is to “ensure that every child is safe, healthy, and engaged in learning during the summer,” so we also support programs in parks and recreation, physical activity and sports, camping, and environmental science and nature learning. There’s great research out there on the positive health outcomes for youth involved in summer activities with structured physical activity and nutrition components, and the negative consequences for children who lack these resources.

Nutrition and summer food service is a big part of NSLA’s work as well. With the reauthorization of the Summer Food Service Program, we hope to ensure that kids have access not only to healthy and consistent meals, but also to learning opportunities during the summer. Many students in low-income communities are eligible for free and reduced-price meals during the school year, but only one-sixth of those same kids receive meals during the summer. We’re working with providers and districts to find additional providers to serve meals when school isn’t in session. It’s also a great opportunity to connect more kids to summer learning programs; kids who are getting summer meals may not be in summer school, but they can still access enrichment opportunities in libraries or through other community organizations.

Opportunities and Challenges for Summer Learning

One of our greatest opportunities is that the summer learning network is becoming savvier about quality. We’re able to highlight many different programs and how they accomplish summer learning and non-academic goals through their quality of service. Higher quality programs allow us to really show positive outcomes, both academic and nonacademic. We have a growing body of evidence that demonstrates the impact of summer learning on closing the opportunity and achievement gaps.

A major challenge to our collective work is the difficult funding environment. Many summer learning programs struggle with sustainability as we see an increased demand for programs but not increased funding. We need to make sure that resources go to the communities and kids who need them most.

Another challenge is reaching kids in rural areas. Even in low-income urban areas, it’s easier to get kids to a central location for programs. This is much harder to do in rural areas, where kids, families, schools, and communities are much more spread out. To meet this need, we’re working with rural leaders and organizations to build an understanding of why summer learning programs are important and determine how to use resources like technology to make programs available to more kids.

Cross-Boundary Leadership

My role at NSLA focuses on connecting our organization to other sectors that are also focused on youth. Part of that effort is finding state and national organizations to partner with in order to advance our work. We try to work broadly and collaboratively with these different sectors, and we work with many different organizations, from the USDA and child hunger groups on the summer meals component, to the afterschool community and national parks and rec associations on physical activity programs. In addition, we look outside education to broaden the summer learning scope, such as working with health and human services programs, and the business sector on summer youth employment.

Leadership Lessons Learned

I’ve always tried to remember that students are at the center of what we do, and everything we do should have an impact on youth. It can be easy to get caught up with the needs of adults or communities or budgets, but kids are still graduating who are not ready for college or the workforce, so we need to take that seriously as leaders.

I’ve also learned that it is important to make the time and space for meaningful collaboration. So many opportunities for collaboration get left on the table because it is hard to do. It takes extra time and effort and we don’t always feel we’re getting the most out of it at the time, but more often than not, it pays off in huge dividends down the road.

EPFP Experience and Value

EPFP was a great turning point in my career. I came into the program after more than 10 years of working on the program side, but I had always been interested in advocacy. I thought EPFP would be a good opportunity to see if I wanted to shift my focus to policy. I really enjoyed our conversations about a variety of issues within the education sector, and the chance to think more broadly about the work I was doing, the students I was serving, and the impact I was making on the education landscape. Hearing the perspectives of the many types of professionals in my cohort—lobbyists, principals, leaders from national organizations—was especially meaningful to me. My time as a Fellow was a great experience that inspired me to get a graduate degree in public policy and join the larger conversation on public education.

I think EPFP is valuable in helping people build a strong network. I’ve kept in touch with many of the people I met through EPFP and have worked with a few of them since our cohort year. The program also gives Fellows a window into what policy looks like on the ground and how it aligns with the work they are doing. Understanding the scope and breadth of education policy and what it really looks like has been useful in my career and EPFP gave me a great background in that.


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