The lights are low and peaceful in the school gymnasium. Around the floor, tiny pink and purple yoga mats are splayed in a large circle, six feet apart. The Community Schools Partnership facilitator sits in the centre. “This is how you breathe mindfully. Sit with your heart up and take a deep breath in and empty all of the worries from your day.” The students in her program adore her. She is the reason some students come to school each day during a pandemic. They feel the safe, caring space and it shows.
Who are we?
Community Schools Partnership (CSP) is a department that complements educational programs in Surrey Schools. Our work is to provide before-, during-, and after-school programs with a focus on sports, arts, STEM, and social-emotional learning (SEL) opportunities. CSP’s goals are aligned with the district’s goals to ensure equity and access for all children to reach their full potential, expand their learning, and grow socially and emotionally. Our programs are shaped around the needs of the school community. We focus on programs and partnership development in areas like physical literacy, art, music, STEM, coding, yoga, dance, and many other extra activities. It is in these programs that CSP Outreach staff have the opportunity to support children and youth who may not have access to fun physical and emotional supports that help them thrive.
Community Schools Partnership is funded through multiple streams provincially, locally, and federally. Our primary funding is through the Community Link Funding, which is intended to target students with complexities who need the additional supports in schools to thrive. Some of those complexities include financial and accessibilty barriers.
Throughout the pandemic, our small but mighty department pivoted and flexed in ways we never knew were possible to ensure that after-school programs continued. In British Columbia, schools remained open throughout the pandemic. Our team continued to implement programs by following the guidelines from the Provincial Health Authority and our school district’s Health and Safety team. Some of the key measures we put in place included: shortening program time, lowering numbers of students in programs, keeping students in their learning cohorts (not mixing cohorts), and communicating clear guidelines for keeping our students and school communities safe.
Why after-school programs matter
After-school programs have always made a difference for kids. They became even more important during the pandemic, when students were on blended learning programs that limited their ability to see friends face to face. Our CSP Outreach Workers and Facilitators worked hard to continue to meet the needs of our students and bring them back to safety, security, and normalcy. One of our Outreach staff, Vanessa, related that “many kids want to learn friendship skills, especially given the circumstances where they are forced to stay at home for extended periods.”
At a time when the mental health and well-being of young people have been clearly impacted, intentional programming that effectively responds to the needs of students will support their recovery as we move into our “new normal.”
Community Schools Partnership programs foster an atmosphere of safety and wrap-around support. They are not separate from the school culture; rather they echo the values and learning throughout the school day and contribute to a school culture that is healthy and robust. Jordan, one of our outreach workers, says, “In our after-school programs, everyone feels accepted and valued. We create opportunities for team building and bringing everyone closer to our common goals.” CSP’s after-school programs provide an intentional space to extend students’ learning and belonging. Student participants feel more connected to the school because they belong to the programs. Group leader Meghan names additional benefits: “Social-emotional learning, social connections after school, physical literacy, and community empowerment.”
Results of the program evaluation
Through the pandemic, we felt it was increasingly important to know where our students were at, socially and emotionally. We collaborated with our research department to create a survey based on some key pillars that reflect the students’ perception of how they are doing.
We evaluated students in nine different CSP after-school programs. Data was collected from 617 program participants ages six to 12, attending these programs across Surrey Schools. Program participants were asked to complete a 25-item survey, broadly grouped into five domains using a five-point Likert Scale. Program participants responded to survey items by indicating their level of agreement: 1) Disagree a lot; 2) Disagree a little; 3) Don’t agree or disagree; 4) Agree a little; and 5) Agree a lot. Additional open-ended questions were posed to program participants.
What we learned through this process was that students who attend CSP after-school programs tend to report higher feelings of attachment and after-school involvement, and to feel a deeper sense of awareness of their thoughts and feelings, than is reported by the overall school population of B.C. in the provincial Middle Years Development Instrument (MDI) survey (see Figure 1). These are early findings, but showcase the importance of after-school programming.
Teaching where they are at
We have been fortunate to be able to run after-school programs for students despite the pandemic. The strain that the pandemic has added to the lives of students has amplified the urgency for us to continue to effectively address the areas of mental health and SEL in our youth. Jordynn, one of our outreach staff, says, “Teaching mental health literacy in our after-school programs has been integral… mindfulness, awareness, and fostering social interactions have been lacking throughout this pandemic.” The opportunity for healthy interactions and rediscovering that place of quiet and calm can offer a much-needed respite for our youth, some of whom may find that the only space for them to practise mindfulness is in their after-school programs.
Consistently listening to the voices, opinions, and insights of our students is essential in creating programs that truly meet their needs. The more we listen, hear, and apply their considerations and make any necessary adaptations to our programs, the more we reach students where they are at and build their trust. We are always listening to them.
At the beginning of the article, our students were finding peace in their after-school program. In the final moments of this program, each student takes a long deep breath in and out. Then they roll up their little yoga mats, and the outreach worker checks in with each student as they make their way to the yoga mat bin. One student says casually on the way out, “I can teach this to my mom. Sometimes she gets stressed too, this could help her,” and runs to catch up with her mom waiting outside. This captures why we do what we do. The pressure that the pandemic is placing on our families and society is significant; however with supports and programming, we adapt. CSP after-school programs encourage children to express and accept their feelings, to embrace challenges, and to build up their resiliency toolboxes.
The authors wish to thank: Chadwin Stang, Tanya Parker, Arthur Tiojanco, Mark Elke, Denis Pavlovic, Manjot Badesha, Jordynn Punter, Jordan McDougall, and the Community Schools Partnership Team.
Photo: Courtesy James Speidel
First published in Education Canada, September 2021