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Providing opportunities to learn

Randall F. Clemens

Annette Lareau, in her classic book Unequal Childhoods, develops the concept of concerted cultivation, the targeted development and socialization of children through experiences and activities. She argues that concerted cultivation—as opposed to natural growth—is a key parenting strategy. It is a concept that is so popular, in part, because it makes sense. For my dissertation, I build on Lareau’s work to discuss concerted cultivation across the neighborhood.

A key difference between high and low achievers is what they do during the first three hours after school. For the highest achievers, this time is spent participating in activities that are consistent with concerted cultivation. For the lowest achievers, this time is often spent hanging around with friends, working at a low-skill job, babysitting siblings, or watching television. Each of these activities does little to improve college access.

What can we do to improve college access?

The answer, I believe, is to create extended learning opportunities (ELOs). The National Education Association defines ELOs as “a broad range of programs that provide children with academic enrichment and/or supervised activities beyond the tradition school day and, in some cases, beyond the traditional school year” (p. 1). Although ELOs may include traditional after-school programs, they consist of a much larger and more flexible variety of options such as before- and after-school tutoring, internships, and summer enrichment programs. ELOs ought to appeal to district administrators, in part, because of the flexibility of delivery options. Districts or private partners such as non-profit organizations or universities may provide them. 

The findings from my dissertation highlight the value of engaging teenagers immediately before and after school. ELOs provide structured supervision where adults act as mentors and resource brokers. High school is a time when teenagers have more independence, more choices, and are more apt to explore their environment. By enrolling their children in out-of-class activities, parents structure and control their teenager’s behavior and activity. After-school activities not only protect teenagers from getting into trouble but also improve student grades, participation, and self-confidence.

While comprehensive reforms such as the Harlem Children’s Zone are necessary and important, they are also expensive and unlikely during the current recession. ELOs present a practical option to provide access to social and cultural capital and engender college access.