By Amy Harris

Nearly 100 educators gathered in Portland from around the state at the annual Positive Youth Development Institute (PYDI) conference, to discuss educators’ belief in the importance of out-of-school programming to the development of children, draw attention to the inadequate opportunities currently available in Maine, and chart an ambitious future for out-of-school education activities.

Out-of-school learning programming is any organized activity for youth outside of the traditional school environment, such as academic programs, specialty programs designed to develop specific skills, faith-based programs, or multipurpose programs that mix homework help, games, and enrichment. Out-of-school learning programs include before- and afterschool and summer programs. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asserts that positive youth development programs, such as out-of-school learning programs, “strengthen young people’s sense of identity, belief in the future, self-regulation, and self-efficacy.”

Sponsors of the conference included the Maine Afterschool Network, Million Girls Moonshot, the ACRES (Afterschool Coaching for Reflective Educators in STEM) program of the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance, the 4-H Cooperative Extension of the University of Maine, the Maine Department of Education (MDOE), and GO2 Science.

Attendees came from the Lewiston, Wells, and Freeport public libraries, Augusta Teen Center, New Beginnings, Breakwater Learning, Maine Boys to Men, Preble Street, Camp Ketcha, Gameloft, LearningWorks, and Lewiston, Bucksport, and South Portland school districts.

Out-of-school learning programs and children from immigrant families

Keynote speaker Brodrick Clarke, Vice President of Programs and Systems Quality at the National Summer Learning Association, spoke about the role of out-of-school programs in fighting systemic inequity in academic spaces. Clarke said all out-of-school programs should aim to encourage youth to “connect with academic concepts in a way that does not feel like school.” To be successful, programs must “integrate family, school, and community,” he said, and allow youth from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and socioeconomic levels to connect, engage, and thrive.

The Afterschool Alliance, a non-partisan, nonprofit advocacy organization supporting universal access to afterschool programming for U.S. children, reported that 18.5 million K-12 children in the U.S. would participate in afterschool programs if a quality program were available. In 2009, before the COVID-19 pandemic upended employment and school schedules for many, over 15 million children in the U.S. were on their own after school.

Maine Afterschool Network encourages the development of engaging, educational, culturally relevant, and linguistically accessible out-of-school programs so that refugee and immigrant youth have more opportunities to advance, survive, and thrive.

Augusta Teen Center’s Executive Director Chris Maloney noted that programs need to consider barriers to participation. For example in Augusta, Maloney said, “I had one teen who could only come every other week because she had to watch her sibling.” And some of the capital city’s growing Iraqi community have requested a separate program for Iraqi girls, due to discomfort with “participants who are more flexible with their gender identities,” Maloney said. And affordability and transportation are often barriers.

Deqa Dhalac, currently Maine State Representative from District 120, said at the conference that out-of-school programs could help bridge “the complex barriers” faced by children, such as “language barriers, cultural differences, socioeconomic constraints, a lack of knowledge about available programs, transportation issues, and mental health issues.” She argued that programs must build trust with the communities and youth they serve by offering “culturally relevant programming, language support services, and community outreach with advertising flyers written in the languages families speak.”

McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act

Conference goers learned that under the relatively unknown federal law, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, program funding could pay for afterschool or summer programs for some students with financial hardship. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act assists and financially supports all public school students, pre-K through grade 12, who “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” according to the law.

Amelia Lyons Rukema, Maine’s McKinney-Vento specialist, and Signe Lynch, Program Coordinator of New Beginnings in Lewiston, also explained that under this law, eligible students have access to transportation so that they can stay at the same school, in the same district, even if they move out of the district; have the legal right to resources such as free school meals, school supplies, and clothing; and can immediately enroll in a new school without the usual required documentation.

Each school district must have a McKinney-Vento liaison, and language assistance services are available. Participation in the McKinney-Vento program does not impact citizenship status.