Two children at a pond

At Prime Time Extended Learning Center in Tacoma, Gemma Stephani recalls welcoming a student who had been expelled from a private elementary school due to behavioral issues.

The student began attending Prime Time after enrolling in a public elementary school, and as the staff grew to know him better, Stephani witnessed a transformation as the child learned to verbalize his feelings more effectively.

“Being here in a caring environment with other children has really changed his attitude about going to school and learning,” said Stephani, Prime Time’s director. “Kids spend a huge percentage of their day outside of school, and these wraparound activities are such an important opportunity to reach them and fill in some of the gaps.”

While extensive research demonstrates that learning beyond the school day helps young people build skills, improve their academic performance and discover their passions, relatively little research exists about what quality looks like in extended learning opportunity (ELO) programs and how to best support program improvement. 

A new effort involving the University of Washington College of Education’s Cultivate Learning aims to change that and improve the lives of children in Washington by providing more access to high-quality out of school time learning environments.

Prime Time was one of 50 ELO programs across the state that participated in a year-long study building on Cultivate Learning’s previous work creating a quality rating and improvement system for Washington’s early learning and childcare programs.

The study aimed to:

  1. Understand what high-quality ELO looks like and how to improve its quality.
  2. Discover how to best support ELO providers in improving the quality of their offerings.

During the study, programs were introduced to a quality assessment tool, conducted a self-assessment of their program, developed an action plan for improvement, participated in coaching sessions and completed another assessment following the intervention.

After completing their self-assessment, Stephani and her staff chose to focus their efforts on improvements in planning, reflection and skill building. Some staff attended methods training workshops offered by Schools Out Washington, while Stephani also led weekly, in-house coaching sessions for her staff.

“It’s really created a sense of buy-in with our staff because they feel valued and challenged to improve,” Stephani said. “And we’ve seen the fruits of that efforts with amazing involvement and engagement by our students.”

Significantly, programs initially rated as lower-quality showed the most improvement with intensive training and coaching support, said Molly Branson Thayer, director of school age and youth development programs at Cultivate Learning.

Given the variation in quality across expanded learning programs, Branson Thayer said the study pointed out the importance of having adequate time for targeted training and coaching.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, you need to understand where a program is in designing the intervention that will make the biggest impact,” Branson Thayer said.

The study also pointed to the importance of investing in coaching, which is rare in the expanded learning domain.

“This pushed coaches out of their comfort zone to do things in a new and different way,” Branson Thayer said. “Coaches need ongoing support and incentives for the work they do to make an impact.” 

Branson Thayer said the assessment tool and training on how to use it helped program staff better define and see quality, which enabled programs to talk more clearly about improvement efforts.

“We saw a lot of desire among programs for more frequent observations and feedback that would allow them to collaborate and resolve issues as they occur,” she said. “We also heard that limited funding and unstable staffing were barriers to improvement. For example, if you had a designated coach or staff person at the program quit, then a lot of that work was gone and you’re starting at ground zero.”

Cultivate Learning has received funding from Washington’s Department of Early Learning to continue its quality improvement work in expanded learning opportunities across the state. With children from low-income families likely to have spent 6,000 less hours engaged in after-school activities, preschool, summer camp and other extended learning activities than middle class kids, Branson Thayer said addressing that gap is a critical need.

“We know that kids who are the most impacted by poverty are the ones who benefit the most from high-quality expanded learning opportunities,” Branson Thayer said.

Forty new programs are entering the rating and improvement effort during the coming year while Cultivate Learning continues development of a quality seal that will help programs demonstrate their quality. Meanwhile, researchers will start gathering input directly from youth about how expanded learning programs operate and are structured.

“The focus on out of school time marks a corner turned for expanded learning opportunities in Washington state,” said Gail Joseph, director of Cultivate Learning and associate professor of educational psychology. “By supporting programs with coaching and training, we can help them hit the benchmarks we know will improve outcomes for kids in Washington and beyond.”

Cultivate Learning also is working to enroll more expanded learning coaches in the UW’s certificate program in practice-based coaching to develop more leadership experiences for the field state-wide.

Those efforts are heartening for Stephani, who sees professionalizing the field of expanded learning as one of the most important ways for Washington and other states to improve long-term outcomes for children.

“We’ve brought more intentionality to our work, planning and reflecting on our activities,” Stephani said. “We see that reflected in our kids. They’re working with eachother during their free choice time, building something together out of LEGOs. There’s a sense of purpose.

“I want this effort to gain momentum and become an integral part of every program because it makes such a big difference in kids’ lives.”


Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications