Summer Means Opportunity…for Students and Cities

 Looking back on 10 years of summer learning with Boston After School & Beyond

Posted:
8/6/2019

Eighteen-year-old Michael Berthaud studies computer science at Boston’s Wentworth Institute of Technology, where he has a full scholarship. He plans to become a video game designer. Looking back on the path that brought him to where he is today, Michael reflects on one of the crucial stops along the way—the summer between middle- and high school, which he spent at a science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics program offered by the nonprofit organization Sociedad Latina.

“I realized there is more to your summer than just staying at home,” Michael says. “In English, we read short stories, and the emphasis was on articulating yourself as a person through writing. I had never looked at school that way. I had a very closed-minded view of what school is supposed to offer you.”

Sociedad Latina’s summer program is part of 5th Quarter of Learning, a citywide initiative co-managed by Boston Public Schools and Boston After School & Beyond (Boston Beyond), a public-private partnership. This summer, 5th Quarter of Learning is celebrating its 10th anniversary—and to get an idea of its impact, one need look no further than Michael, whose time in the program helped him set his course toward a career that combines technology and the arts.

“I started to yearn to express myself,” he says. “I like to write, I like to draw, things of that nature. That’s probably why the Sociedad program really stuck with me.”

There’s a lesson for all of us in Michael’s story: Summer is a time of opportunity. For young people, it’s an opportunity to experience enriching activities and ways of learning they may not be exposed to during the school year. For school districts, it’s an opportunity to try out new approaches to instruction and help students gain or make up ground in core academic subjects. For cities, it’s an opportunity to unite the education, nonprofit, philanthropy and business worlds to work toward a common goal.

That’s where Boston Beyond comes in. Founded in 2005, Boston Beyond is an intermediary or “backbone” organization. Its job is to bring government agencies, funders, program providers, business leaders, colleges and universities, and other players to the table and coordinate their efforts to create new and better learning experiences for the city’s students. It also serves as a go-to source for research and policy proposals.

At first, the school district viewed Boston Beyond primarily as a conduit to the city’s hundreds of community-based programs, but the relationship has developed into a partnership of equals—a “strategic leadership initiative” jointly run by the school system and intermediary, in the words of Arianna Wilson, the district’s program manager for expanded learning time. “Together, we set goals, then divide and conquer the work based on our different focuses and strengths, and our programs see the benefits,” she says.

CJS-headshot.jpgChris Smith, president and executive director of Boston Beyond, describes the organization’s role this way: “We see ourselves as the conscience for collaboration and continuously thinking about how to do together what none of us could do alone.”

Collaboration requires courage because everyone involved will be called on to do things they’ve never done before, Smith says, whether it’s “taking a group of kids you wouldn’t normally serve or sending teachers to a place they wouldn’t normally teach.” It can take time to build trust, but Smith is convinced that trust comes from diving in and getting to work.

“I hate the idea of sitting around a conference table for two years and not getting off the dime to do something together,” he says. “I can name the people from the first two years [of 5th Quarter of Learning]. I can picture the smiles on their faces and the look in their eyes. They brought different perspectives from different situations, but they came to agreement on how our model would roll out.”

One of those people was Eric Arnold, executive director of Hale Reservation, a nonprofit that has been around for more than 100 years, offering camp experiences in a 1,000-plus-acre woodland preserve about 15 miles outside the city. As Arnold tells it, “I was involved in a separate work group that had to do with environmental education in Boston. I was at a meeting, and Chris came in and said, ‘By the way, we’re exploring how we look at summer learning,’ and I said, ‘I think I’d be interested. Tell me more.’ It speaks to Boston Beyond’s ability to put people together in the right place at the right time.”

Hale Reservation has been a 5th Quarter of Learning program provider ever since. Hale students take math and English classes in the great outdoors, challenge themselves with ropes courses in the trees, and discover the surrounding wildlife on a pontoon boat known as the “floating classroom.” Other programs chosen and overseen by Boston Beyond give students the chance to learn tennis or lacrosse, write for a teen newspaper, even sail from Boston Harbor to Ellis Island.

The students aren’t the only ones who are getting something invaluable from their 5th Quarter of Learning experience. Boston Beyond offers program providers professional development, rigorous research on the effectiveness of their work, and connections to potential partners, funders and families who could benefit from their services. Arnold says that being a part of the initiative has helped validate something Hale Reservation’s supporters knew intuitively—that its work was making a difference for kids.

“It put us on the map in a different way with families that participate and the greater Boston community,” he says. “You spend your summer working with Boston Public Schools, you build capital with the district, so then when you start to propose other things, it validates your work. And it’s done that for many other organizations, as well.”

Word of this win-win-win arrangement (for students and families, for program providers, and for the school system and city as a whole) has gotten around. In 2010, the initiative served 232 students at five sites. This year, it will serve 14,000 students at 160 sites. In 2018, the Massachusetts legislature passed a $500,000 line item in the state budget to expand 5th Quarter of Learning to 19 other communities across the state. In keeping with its role as a hub of information and ideas, Boston Beyond is sharing what it’s learned with these communities.

Chris Smith is focused less on Boston Beyond’s accomplishments, however, than on the road ahead—just like Michael Berthaud. He won’t be satisfied until every child in Boston (and beyond) has access to a high-quality, horizon-expanding summer experience. To Smith, keeping the eyes of an entire city turned toward a brighter future is just part of an intermediary’s job description.

“An intermediary can’t just manage the status quo,” he says.