Achieving the Goal of Stronger Schools with High-Quality Expanded Learning Time

David Goldberg is NCTL's Director of Federal Policy & National Partnerships.

Throughout its tenure, the Obama Administration has made using high-quality ELT as a whole school reform strategy a key priority in education. In their proposals to replace No Child Left Behind and in their annual budgets, the Administration set the goal of making federal law more flexible and federal funds available so that states and districts could choose to expand learning time to provide students with a well-rounded education that prepares them for the 21st century. Last week, with new guidance on the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, the Administration cleared out more of the obstacles, helping communities that want to choose high-quality ELT for their students.   

The guidance applies to the 23 states that applied for and were granted an ESEA Flexibility Waiver to expand their 21st Century program to include high-quality ELT schools as an option, along with before school, after school, and summer programs.  These states, districts, and their CBO partners, now have the option of applying for either out-of-school time programs OR in-school expanded learning time programs that expand the school day, week, or year for all students as part of a comprehensive, whole school reform instead of being restricted to only an afterschool program that only serves a subset of children tacked onto the existing school day. 

The new guidance clarifies how states, districts, and schools can run their 21st Century grant programs, and the purposes for which they can use the grant funding in the context of an ELT school.  With this guidance, state officials operating grant programs, district and school grantees, and applicants can all move forward implementing ELT with confidence, knowing what is covered.

Here are some highlights from the new guidance:

1.      When creating an ELT school with 21st Century funding, it does not matter what time of day a particular activity is happening - during the school day as well as before school, after school, on weekends, and during the summer.

2.      Applicants have the flexibility to design both their program and their grant application as they see fit. The grant could be used to fund all or just part of the ELT program, or it could be used partially for the ELT program and partially for an after school program at the same school.

3.      A school that currently has a 21st Century afterschool grant has some limited flexibility to use the grant to help the school convert to an ELT school. The school would still have to use the grant funds to provide essentially the same services using the same partners as it was providing in after school hours; however, it would be allowed to use the grant funds to pay for those activities if they were moved inside the school’s expanded-time schedule. Before making a change like this, the district would have to get approval from the state.

4.      A school that already uses an expanded-time schedule is allowed to apply for the funds; however, it must show that the funds will be used to provide new programs or services, or some type of expansion that would not have been otherwise available without the funding. 

5.      A non-school organization is eligible to apply for a 21st Century grant to support ELT, just as it can apply for a grant to fund an after school program. However, in the case of an ELT school, the non-school organization clearly does not have the authority to expand a school schedule on its own. Technically, it could show in its application that it had an agreement with the partner school(s) to expand the school day, week, or year. The guidance reaffirms that applications submitted by partnerships between districts and outside partners will be prioritized – as they are now – and it makes clear in the case of ELT schools that partnerships, subgrants, and contracts are the most logical ways to incorporate outside groups.

6.      Funds can be used to pay teachers for additional time.

7.      For all grants, the “supplement, not supplant” rule still applies. This means that grantees have to show that the new grant funds would be paying for new things. The grant cannot replace existing dollars that were already paying for an existing program, freeing up that money to be used elsewhere. However, for schools that have implemented expanded learning time through a SIG grant, it would be sufficient to demonstrate that that the SIG funds are running out and that the expanded time would not be paid for in the absence of the 21st Century grant.

As significant as these guidelines can be for stimulating the creation of new (and supporting existing) ELT schools, the most important thing about them are that the U.S. Department of Education (USED) is taking a “whole school” approach to ELT. They’ve resisted the narrow view of looking at ELT as “regular day” and “added time” or parsing up ELT into just a few small things to be tacked onto an existing school’s program.  It’s clear from the guidance that they view it as a whole school reform and that the addition of significant time creates the opportunity to do everything differently, which is what we at NCTL have always advocated.  For example, USED recommends using expanded time for teacher collaboration and planning, for partnering with outside organizations and “redesigning the whole school day to use time more strategically, especially in designing activities that are not ‘more of the same’.”

All told, these terms of use for 21st Century funds for ELT support expanded learning time as a powerful strategy that can be leveraged to better meet a school’s educational goals.  And, as regular readers of this blog know, schools taking full advantage of more time can have an extraordinary impact on the lives of individual students and the prospects for their future, and that, of course, is the ultimate goal we and the Administration are trying to achieve.