August 21, 2018

Bridging the Out-of-School Gap

Tom Linfield

I was way over-involved in high school. I worked on the school paper, yearbook, sang in the choir and madrigals, and played violin in the orchestra. But my biggest creative outlet was theater, performing as Mr. Bumble in “Oliver” (got to sing the title song), a dancing waiter in “Hello Dolly,” (had to dance down a staircase holding a turkey) and the villain in our senior class play (complete with top hat, a Snidely Whiplash moustache to twirl, and a barrage of audience hisses whenever I did the hero wrong). 

So I was excited when my daughter’s high school put on “Little Shop of Horrors.”  The show was great, however, I was surprised by the lack of diversity on and behind stage, since I know 50 percent of the school’s population is kids of color. I called the principal, who explained that it costs $200 per student to participate. Unfortunately, the populations of color and poverty, as has been extensively researched, overlap mightily. Small wonder, then, that at a school where 50 percent of its students are of color and 50 percent are on free and reduced lunch (federal barometer for K-12 poverty), not all of our school children were represented on stage. There’s not a lot of diversity on my son’s soccer field, either.

What does all of this mean? No matter how good a job we are doing in the classroom, we are missing a huge opportunity outside the classroom, where students spend 80 percent of their time. The good news: the Madison area is blessed with hundreds of Out of School Time (OST) programs that employ over 4,000 people and serve 16,000 K-12 youth annually. The bad news: the pay-to-play culture that requires fees for most programming has created a huge gulf in access. Research indicates that by the sixth grade, there is a 6,000-hour learning gap between children whose family can afford OST programs and those who cannot.

National researchers and local practitioners agree–OST is a game changer. Parents  know their children are safe and engaged in positive experiences, teachers see improvement in attendance, grades and behavior, and children benefit from higher self-esteem and confidence, better work habits, lower obesity rates, fewer behavioral problems, and strong relationships with peers and OST program mentors.

Quite a few OST programs offer free or reduced costs, but most have waiting lists. Scholarships are available at many organizations, but far too few to really level the playing field. Another barrier is transportation. Our community is grappling with an enormous racial achievement gap, and out of school time programming is a key factor in equaling the playing field.

Fortunately, the city of Madison and Madison Metropolitan School District have combined forces on an initiative, the Madison Out of School Time Project (MOST), to study and remedy the OST gap. Project leaders estimate that there are 5,000 children prevented from accessing available out-of-school riches. Madison Community Foundation has funded many OST programs, from Children’s Theater of Madison to Simpson Street Free Press, and has helped fund the research and construction of a MOST database that is designed as a portal for both parents and OST providers. For the first time ever, all local OST programs are listed in one place, searchable by grade level, subject area, geography and even cost, at

But awareness is just a first step. The MOST program is now operating on several fronts to help reduce the learning gap, in part by creating a way for the school district to see which students are not benefitting from extra-curricular activities and then working with individual families to get them more engaged. In addition, the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools is building an alumni database that will eventually help schools engage their former students in mentorship and activities with current students. And OST programs like the First Tee of South Central Wisconsin and Centro Hispano are increasing their capacity and reach, while working systemically at schools across the city. Community centers pitch in, too, often purchasing vans to solve the transportation challenges.

Each of these areas–program affordability, transportation and decreasing waiting lists–offer philanthropic opportunities to donors across the region. For example, Many OST providers are building scholarship endowments to help fund permanent access for all children, regardless of their economic status. Many MCF donors tell us that they simply want to provide others with the opportunities that they themselves have enjoyed.

If my working, single parent had been faced with a $200 fee for me to act and sing in a school musical, I would never have been able to participate. The skills I learned—public speaking, creative problem-solving, leadership and teamwork—would never have bloomed and made me who I am today.

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