A hum fills the classroom in Marysville's Liberty Elementary. Students huddle together in groups over large sheets of poster board, sketching maps and arranging prints of photos.
University of Washington College of Education post-doctoral researcher Shelley Stromholt leans down to talk with one group of two boys and a girl, asking where their photographs were taken. Two weeks earlier, the students snapped pictures of some of their favorite places in and around Liberty Elementary. Tonight, they're working together to draw a map of the school with their photos to illustrate it.
After listening to the students describe where they stopped on their photo safari — the library, playground, classrooms of their favorite teachers — Stromholt talks with the group about how they plan to create their map together.
Stromholt and her UW colleagues are here as part of a new initiative to give poverty-impacted families in the Marysville district access to consequential out-of-school learning opportunities at an early age. Those opportunities are hard to come by for half of the nation's public school students, who grow up in poverty.
"We want to get all kids involved in engaging, real-world, creative learning activities," said Andrew Shouse, the College of Education faculty member leading the curriculum design study. "What we're learning in Marysville will help us address the lack of access that so many families face."
As Stromholt works with the children, Beth Strehlo, administrative coordinator for the College's Learning in Informal and Formal Environments Center, and independent consultant Gilda Wheeler are documenting students' reasoning about why they chose the photos they did.
Tonight's activity incorporates iterative design and modeling, concepts that are important elements of the Next Generation Science Standards adopted by Washington state. Yet it's also intended to foster local pride and knowledge that each student can make an impact in the community.
"We want kids to start thinking, 'What do we love about our community' and 'How can we improve it'," Shouse said.
Closing opportunity gaps
Funded by a $1.3 million 21st Century Community Learning Center grant, the intensive afterschool program is a partnership of the Marysville School District, Marysville Library, Workforce Snohomish, Washington Alliance for Better Schools, YMCA of Snohomish County Marysville Branch, Pacific Education Institute, Geoliteracy Alliance and the College's Institute for Science + Math Education.
Third through fifth graders at Marysville's Quil Ceda Tulalip and Liberty elementary schools are participating in the program, which aims to close the achievement gap present in the poverty-impacted schools.
More than three-quarters of students qualify for free and reduced lunch at the two schools, which also have the lowest test scores in the district and some of the lowest in the state. At Quil Ceda Tulalip, for example, fewer than 60 percent of students meet reading standards and only about half of students meet math standards.
Kyle Kinoshita, executive director for learning and teaching at Marysville School District, says that status quo needs to change.
"There's a ton of research that indicates if you can extend learning time for students who have not historically been served well by the school, you will see improvements in their academic performance," he said.
The afterschool activities kicked off in fall 2014. Once the final school bell rings, participating children have a snack to settle in and do some physical activity before turning to a variety of learning activities from literacy to music to math and science.
At 6 p.m., the program wraps up with dinner before parents pick up their children. The afterschool sessions take place Monday through Thursday.
"Beyond the learning that's taking place, I think there are intangible benefits to providing a positive experience for the kids," Kinoshita said. "It's something productive that our students can do after school and form strong relationships with our adult volunteers."
The program also is intentional about involving parents. Parent nights give them a chance to observe the learning first hand, ask questions and understand the how learning inside and outside the classroom are connected.
Approximately 25 students at each elementary school joined the afterschool program at its launch, with a goal of increasing that to 50 at each site as it continues. The grant will fund the initiative for five years.
The Washington Alliance for Better Schools (WABS) is managing the grant, and besides looking at test scores, surveys will be administered to teachers, parents and students, and external evaluators from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction will visit to assess the initiative and learn from the work being done here.
Emily Yim, executive director of WABS, said she's encouraged by the breadth of the coalition that's come together.
"It is very unusual to have this level of collaboration to put together our energies for a common purpose," Yim said.
Partners in the initiative have taken turns providing enrichment activities, and the UW College of Education team headed by Shouse will lead sessions focusing on STEM learning Mondays and Thursdays throughout July.
"Learning in STEM fields can open huge new opportunities to students in poverty-impacted environments," Shouse said. "Building strong partnerships and creating new avenues for students to do STEM activities across both formal and informal learning can have a tremendous impact on closing achievement gaps. We want all young people to be able to decide their own futures."
Philip Bell, Shauna C. Larson Chair in Learning Sciences
Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications