Over the last decade, organizations and thought leaders in Tacoma and across Pierce County have worked tirelessly to improve accessibility and quality of Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELO) for the city’s children and youth. At the heart of this work is equity, as it aims first and foremost to deliver high-quality, culturally relevant, fun, and accessible programming to students.
What started as a Community Schools Model pilot program in one middle school has grown to encompass over 40 schools across two school districts and over 30 ELO providers. This blog tracks that development and outlines some of the leaders and partners who made it possible.
Tacoma Pilots the Community Schools Model
In 2010, the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation (GTCF) and Tacoma 360 used a school improvement grant (SIG) to partner with a Tacoma Public Schools (TPS) Middle School and the YMCA of Pierce & Kitsap Counties to pilot a coordinated ELO Center youth development and support program at First Creek Middle School known as the Eagle Center. The program set out to support a school that didn’t have the capacity to improve student well-being and academic success on its own. While the model was new to Tacoma, it had already been launched with outstanding results in the lowest performing school district in the nation — Harlem, New York — by the Children’s Aid Society.
Fahren Johnson was tapped to lead the charge as the Community Schools Program Director at the YMCA Center for Community Impact. After visiting the Children’s Aid Society office to get a feel for the work, Fahren hit the ground running — conducting community needs assessments, knocking on doors, and meeting students in Title 1 schools across Tacoma.
What is Title 1? Title 1 is a federally funded educational program that provides supplemental funding to schools with large concentrations of low-income students to assist in meeting student’s educational goals.
A variety of support and enrichment services in academics, arts, STEAM, health and nutrition, and mentorship were implemented at First Creek, and after three years they began to see opportunity and achievement gaps narrow. Attendance significantly improved, behavioral incidents decreased, and the grade point average increased by 40%, culminating in the creation of the first ELO Center in Pierce County, the Eagle Center. The model quickly expanded into more TPS Title 1 schools, and an additional ELO Center was built each year for the next five years.
Watch the video below to hear Fahren’s inspirational pep talk to the students at First Creek Middle School as they prepare for MSP testing in 2013.
Threading Together ELO and SEL
In 2017, GTCF and TPS had the opportunity to take part in a research project funded by the Wallace Foundation – the Tacoma Whole Child Partnership. Having successfully piloted the Community Schools Model and launched the work in the K-5th grade space, Fahren was called to lead the implementation of Coordinated ELO and Community Partnerships through the Partnership for Social Emotional Learning Initiative (PSELI). This initiative was implemented in 12 Tacoma elementary schools and aligned school day and out-of-school efforts to build the social and emotional competencies of TPS students. The primary question the research was trying to answer: If urban schools and their expanded learning partners work together to improve and align experiences and climate to foster children’s social and emotional learning (SEL), will students benefit?
The short answer — yes. The long answer — in order for SEL to successfully thread in and out of ELO, you need a system.
“Without someone on the ground who knows how to coordinate, is culturally responsive, and can foster culture and climate with school staff, community partners, students, and families, we can’t get social emotional learning to run through a coordinated system as a connected environment within an ELO ecosystem,” Fahren Johnson, Greentrike director of strategic initiatives
While the YMCA had the capacity to be the sole lead agency in 2010, the work had grown and now required multiple anchor organizations to hold as schools’ lead coordinators. Boys and Girls Club of South Puget Sound, Tacoma Arts Live, Schools Out WA, KBTC, and Peace Community Center answered the call and convened with school staff and administrators for retreats, training, and team building to gain the necessary skills to lead this work.
Greentrike OSTI is Born
In 2021, Pierce County ELO work transferred from GTCF to Greentrike when Fahren joined Greentrike as director of strategic initiatives to lead Out-of-School Time Intermediary (OSTI) work. Her role has expanded from local to countywide work with the aim to improve access and quality of ELO by ensuring everyone involved is supported to bring their best – in SEL, in equity, and in quality.
“When those strands are braided and you’re funneling it through youth development programming, you will make an impact,” Fahren Johnson
Greentrike OSTI work has since expanded its reach into an additional school district (University Place School District), the Tacoma Housing Authority, and anchor partners like Communities in Schools, and Metro Parks Tacoma.
Equity is the Top Priority – Pay What You Choose
Pay What You Choose was offered across both districts in the 2021-2022 school year to ensure ELO activities were affordable and accessible for every student. During registration, participants decide on the amount to pay for activities. The payment sliding scale is between $0 and $150. Every dollar goes back into the ELO program hub to support the amazing providers and instructors who are bringing high-quality and enriching programs to TPS and UPSD schools.
Quality and Continuity – Signature Practices
One way Greentrike braids together ELO across schools and communities is through our Signature Practices: Warm Welcomes to build relationships between and amongst providers and students, Emotion Checks to build emotional awareness, and Community Circles to build social awareness.
Recognizing that these practices can’t be deepened until we connect over SEL practices first, we started offering optional SEL training for ELO providers that focuses on the five CASEL competencies – self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.
“At the end of the day it’s not just a club or an offering. It is a safe space for young people to journey in their emotions, desires, passions, interests, who they want to be, and how they want to show up in the world. It’s that. I’m not going to see results tomorrow, but I will 4, 5, 6 years down the line when a student has her degree and is the CEO at a non-profit. It’s all SEL.” Fahren Johnson
ELO Provider Spotlight
ELO Providers at TPS and UPSD offer a range of educational and engaging activities for students before and after school and during in-service days and school breaks. One of the providers at Tacoma Public Schools is McCarver Scholars, run by Peace Community Center. Sheree Cooks, who runs the program at Beyond the Bell, said that her team works closely with teachers to create engaging ways for students to practice core competencies for their grade level.
“We provide a safe space for students to be upfront with their feelings,” said academic coach Camella Krumpach. “They get comfortable with us, build social skills. I would have loved to be involved in this as a kid.”
While Greentrike OSTI anticipates expansion into more schools and school districts in the coming years, we also recognize that the work will never be “finished,” and that continuous improvement is key. Targeting school spaces with the highest need first, coaching ELO providers, maintaining rigorous onboarding processes, and building relationships with communities served are a few of the ways we maintain our priorities of equity and access in our mission to provide better opportunities and outcomes for all children and youth in Pierce County.
Learn more about OSTI and ELO in Pierce County with these articles!