Texas has long touted its meteoric economic growth and business-friendly climate and yet, our children’s test scores rank in the lower half of states in both reading and math. And that was before the pandemic. Recently released assessment data from the Texas Education Agency confirm what we’ve assumed to be true for the past 18 months: “as a result of learning disruptions caused by the pandemic, the number of students not meeting grade level increased” among all grade levels and in all but two subject areas.

Texas 2036 estimates that in the next 15 years, 71% of jobs will require some college education, but currently only 28% of 8th graders complete a post-secondary degree or certificate within six years of high school graduation. If Texas wants to continue to be a national leader, we need a new approach. We need to think big and bold—both in and out of school—to help our youth recover and prepare them for the dynamic workplaces of tomorrow.

Importantly, Texas school leaders do not and should not have to do this work alone. More than 80% of a student’s time is spent outside the classroom, and in Fort Worth, education leaders know that out of school time (OST) programs are powerful partners to prepare youth for college, career, and their futures. With the funding available from the latest federal COVID-19 relief package, schools and youth-serving organizations can close gaps for Texas students by building strategic partnerships that generate alignment and shared accountability. 

The American Rescue Plan provides an unprecedented opportunity to develop innovative solutions to better prepare our students. In Texas, that means more than $12 billion in funding for state and local education agencies to use for learning recovery and to meet students’ social, emotional, and mental health needs through summer learning and comprehensive after-school programs. As our state’s education leaders and school districts determine how to spend those funds, it’s crucial that they leverage partnerships with community-based organizations to maximize these investments. 

Out of school time programs exist in every community and provide hands-on, applied learning opportunities that accelerate and expand upon what is learned during a school day and build social and workforce skills that will serve them well beyond graduation. 

The AB Christian Learning Center in Fort Worth’s Stop Six neighborhood is one of many Texas OST programs already supporting the goals of its local school district. Their programs, which are free of charge and serve families in low-income communities, have a strong literacy component, in alignment with Fort Worth Independent School District’s goal of 100% of third graders reading at grade level by 2025. Its Freedom School Summer Learning program helps students in kindergarten through 12th grade sharpen their reading skills and avoid the loss of reading proficiency over the summer, which is all too common, especially for children from families with low incomes. 

They also provide high school students with college readiness support, help college students develop their workplace behavior, and offer STEM programming, including hosting adults with STEM careers as guest speakers.

Like most other OST programs in our state, every year, AB Christian has to cobble together funding from different sources to deliver its programs. Even with generous support from community partners, limited resources prevent them from serving all the children and families who would like to participate. 

This is the story across Texas, where unmet demand for out of school time programs has reached an all-time high. Today, more than 2.5 million children are waiting for an available program. Without sustainable public funding for out of school time programs, children from families with low incomes and communities of color will continue to be more likely to miss out due to cost, transportation issues, and lack of access to programs. 

Demand for these programs is great because they are proven to help kids reach their full potential, and parents understand how much their kids benefit. Decades of data show OST programs support kids’ social and emotional development, accelerate learning gains, improve students’ reading and math skills, and boost on-time graduation. 

Schools and districts must maximize the impact of their federal relief funding, including partnering with community programs as the legislation and evidence base recommends. For an equitable, robust recovery from the pandemic and a necessary investment in our children’s and our state’s future, we need to work together, forge bold new partnerships, and wisely allocate every available dollar to optimize outcomes for every young Texan today, tomorrow and decades forward.

Jenna Courtney is the executive director of the Texas Partnership for Out of School Time (TXPOST) and Tobi Jackson is the executive director of Fort Worth SPARC and President of the Fort Worth Independent School District Board of Trustees.

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