Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Short Note on Time In and Out of School

Don Siegel

When Sam and I were first crafting Project Coach in 2003-04, we came across Richard Rothstein’s Class and Schools, a wonderful book about the achievement gap, and the role that school can play in closing it. In essence, Rothstein argued there, and continues to do so, that school alone cannot close the gap. In fact, he stated that scholarly efforts over four decades have confirmed that:

“…no analyst has been able to attribute less than two-thirds of the variation in achievement among schools to the family characteristics of their students.”

While debates ensue about the importance of school in closing the achievement gap, typically portrayed as differences in academic achievement among Caucasian youth, and black and Hispanic youth, and among children emanating from different socio-economic strata, it seems that the larger context of their lives also must be considered.

How much time do kids actually spend in school? Data from the National Center for Educational Statistics shows that, on average, children go to school 180 days in a year, and for 6.7 hours a day. This equals 1206 of the 8760 hours in a year, or 13.8% of a child’s time. Given that a youth between 12-18 needs between 8-9 hours of sleep each night, sleep occupies about 3285 hours in a year, or 37.5% of their time. If we compute the average time that children are in school while they are awake, we find that this represents 22% of their time. This leaves about 78% of a child’s waking hours outside of school! This 22% vs 78% split is not that far removed from Rothstein’s 33% vs 67% split of the in-school—out of school contributions to the achievement gap.

While there is a great deal of discussion of how schools should be structured, what curricula we should be teaching, and how we should be assessing the effectiveness of teaching and learning, the fact remains that kids spend much more of their time out side of school than within school. Rothstein’s book contains a great deal of information about the sorts of disparities kids experience out of school, including, but not limited to such things as access to health services, parenting practices, connecting to cultural and social capital, and general living conditions. For more detailed analyses on these factors one should read Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods, and more recently, Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Clearly, if 78% of a kid’s waking hours provide differential exposure to things that significantly impact their health and well-being, how realistic is it to believe that schools alone, where they spend 22% of their time, can redress the inequities that are manifested in academic performance?  On the other hand, out of school programs, like Project Coach, can, and are attempting to redress inequities in the 78% of the time that kids are out of school. Surely, other factors come into play, but we can be doing more as a nation to enrich kids lives during their waking hours, which is largely outside of school.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Learning from Others: There Really are no Magic Bullets

Don Siegel

While most people familiar with Project Coach know that sports are an important part of what we do, few know that we like to think of ourselves first, and foremost, as a youth development program. In a nutshell, this means that our core goal is to use sports as a means to promote youth development, not as an end in themself.  The idea is that when leveraged properly kids can acquire a whole array of valuable life skills, including such things as emotional and attentional control, goal-setting and attainment skills, learning that extended practice is necessary to become good at something, developing an appreciation for and the capacity to be a valued team member, when and how to show initiative, and how to communicate effectively in various situations.

Project Coach also is a laboratory for undergraduates and graduate students interested in becoming teachers of urban youth or involved in public policy issues that impact the lives of underserved kids. As a laboratory, we also are very interested in learning from others, and actively seek out and study the strengths and weaknesses of other programs having a similar mission. One such organization that we have watched and admired over the years is the National Urban Squash and Educational Association (NUSEA).

NUSEA is the umbrella organization for programs that embrace the sport of squash as a core activity, and like Project Coach, use sport as the medium through which to engage and connect with youth in order to empower them as they acquire a whole array of powerful assets that can promote success in other contexts such as school.  Seventeen NUSEA programs operate in the United States, and four more recently became international affiliates. In aggregate, NUSEA Programs enroll around 2000 kids, ranging from those in elementary school to adolescents attending college. To become an affiliate, programs must enroll children from schools that have a student body of which at least 70% is eligible for free lunch.

Two thousand kids enrolled in 21 programs does not seem like a lot (approximately 95 kids in a program), and could lead some to be critical of NUSEA’s reach, but on closer inspection one can see that to do the sorts of things that they are doing, small numbers are necessary. To be a NUSEA member a program needs to sign on to operating at least five days a week during the school year, with participants attending sessions at least three of these days. Sessions, which run about three hours in duration, blend squash with academic enrichment activities that are closely tied to a child’s schoolwork. They also run weekend practices or tournaments on at least half of the school-year weekends. During the summers, NUSEA also requires that at least 80% of participants attend at least 20+ days of programming. All participants must also do at least 10 hours of community service and/or health and wellness programming each year. Affiliates must also provide college and alumni support for participants up to the age of 24.

What is the impact of this in-depth, small-scale approach? Looking at NUSEA’s flagship program, Boston based SquashBusters, one can not help but be impressed. Out of the 84 of 86 kids who completed the multi-year program between 2003-2014, 86% went on to a four year college, and 14% matriculated at a two year college. In contrast, only 39% of kids in the Boston Public School System fared as well. Additionally, 78% of the SquashBuster cohort that graduated from high school between 2003-2010 and enrolled in college earned a degree.  Ninety-five percent graduated from a four-year college, and 5% graduated from a two-year college. Comparable Boston Public School data showed that twenty-five percent of high-school graduates went on to graduate from college.

While I am not certain that other affiliates can show such impressive results, or that the data can not be criticized for the self-selection effects that could account for “skimming” the most able kids from the demographic served by NUSEA Programs, I remain thoroughly impressed by how the activities in which kids engage relate to, and appear to be causal in, producing such outcomes. What is evident to me is that programs such as SquashBusters enroll kids who meet the criteria of being underserved, and whose families struggle financially, and in many other ways. Yet, these kids are, or become motivated, to work hard and embrace all the “wrap-around” activities that are offered. The sheer number of hours during which kids engage in squash, academics, character education, community service, travel, and college preparation during the school year and during its extensive summer programs rivals the number of hours that they are in school, and clearly becomes an important part of their lives.

This extensive array of activities in which kids engage and the depth to which they do it is the “magic sauce”. Essentially, this is what Greg Zaff, founder of SquashBusters, in 1995, conveyed to me in 2003 when he was in the midst of completing his world class squash facility on the campus of Northeastern University. He acknowledged that some would be critical of how small scale his program was when he started (24 kids), but he believed that to get the kids that he was working with to stay “on the rails” and get to and through college, they needed to be thoroghly engaged, and exposed to all the things that their more advantaged peers experienced as they moved from childhood to adolescents, and from adolescents to adulthood. 

In his recent speech at NUSEA’s annual dinner, honoring him and SquashBuster’s twentieth anniversary, Greg attributed the success of his program to a very simple theme that came from a quote written on the board in a class that he took on health policy. It stated that “All disease results from an absense of love.” While at first blush this may seem like one of those lines that people agree with without much thought about how love and health are intertwined. But,  I think that Greg’s interpretation of this relationship is more nuanced and complex. Physical health may be an important part of this, but in hearing the rest of his talk, he was really thinking about the American Dream, equal opportunity, and the belief that all kids, irrespective of where they start, and how many obstacles they may face as they grow up, can thrive. "Health" is a place holder for thriving.  The “love” part goes beyond the love that a parent gives to a child, and encompasses that which a community gives to it’s children. What Greg envisioned was the squash community, which includes current, and former players, as well as others who have an interest in the sport, providing the human and financial resources to embrace a group of underserved kids, and to provide them with “whatever it takes” for them to compete in a world that, for the most part, have left them behind. 

Greg conveyed that when he first started out he wasn’t certain how to do this, but like a parent who learns what his child needs as she grows, he experimented and, with the help of the squash community, added activities and experiences for the kids that would help them to thrive. In talking with Greg a few years ago, well after SquashBusters had become one of the model program in NUSEA, he reiterated that he still did not have a complex “theory of change”, but increasingly ascribed to the idea that different kids needed different things at different times in their lives, and that programs such as his should do their best to help them to get what they need, whatever these things may be.

What Project Coach has learned from programs like SquashBusters and people like Greg, is that the “magic sauce” of model youth development programs is simple to conceptualize, but time and resource intensive. Like most things that are worthwhile, it entails lots of “practice and work” in some core activity, such as a sport or artistic endeavor, which allows a community of peers, teachers, coaches, and supporters to build scaffolding around each participant to give him or her what he or she needs in transitioning from childhood to adulthood. As Greg and his colleagues have often stated, their programs are not really about developing elite squash players, just as Project Coach is not about developing professional coaches. They are about engaging kids, connecting them to a supportive community, and empowering them to compete with their more priviledged peers in other contexts that will critically impact their futures, such as school.  

We at Project Coach are greatful to Greg, as is NUSEA, for helping us all better understand what youth development work is about. In essence, it is not all that complicated, as he shows us that communities need to love (embrace) their youth and provide them with the things that they need in order to thrive. To paraphrase coaching legend Vince Lombardi, we know how to make this happen, but the question becomes whether or not we have the will to do so? As we learn from Greg, and folks like him, they are “forces of nature” who have shown us how one person’s vision and tenacity can make a difference in the lives of so many struggling kids who start out with little chance of competing in a world increasingly favoring those born into the right circumstances. Yet, SquashBuster kids are beating the odds by a large margin. Just take a look at what his kids think about him and the program that he started 20 years ago.