Community Learning and Tech Hubs:

A Solution to Lost Learning Time and Education Inequity

Richard W. Riley, Former U.S. Secretary of Education, Former Governor of South Carolina

As Governor, U.S. Secretary of Education, and otherwise, I have stressed my belief that “the stronger the start, the better the finish” with respect to education, beginning with high-quality childcare and early education and development.

I feel equally strongly that there also must be a strong continuum of learning and other supports for school-age children and youth (and their families) through summer enrichment and comprehensive afterschool opportunities. We need to strengthen and improve the school day, of course. But out-of-school times are just as important – and even much more so during our current challenges. Because of the pandemic, many childcare and youth supervision programs have had to shut down, further disadvantaging low- and moderate-income families in keeping or seeking employment. Another challenge is the upskilling of many current and future jobs, which requires more training and community college experiences.

We must ignite a powerful antidote to the massive learning and job losses resulting from the pandemic. The American Rescue Plan Act’s significant new federal funding for education recovery (ESSER III) can be the catalyst. State and local leaders should maximize that infusion, together with the significant new comprehensive childcare funding, to create Community Learning and Tech Hubs in or near every low- to moderate-wealth school.

These Community Learning and Tech Hubs located in or near public schools throughout the South and all across America could address simultaneously the pandemic-related learning losses and dislocations; expand and rebuild appropriate afterschool and summer child/youth care and learning opportunities; and create more pathways and information toward postsecondary workforce training and 2/4-year college. Hubs located in or near public schools could supply school-age child/youth care that also provides engaged learning and technology opportunities.

Pandemic aside, many school-age children and youth of working parents spend almost as much time in afterschool and summer programs as they do in a traditional school-day setting.  According to Afterschool Alliance surveys done before the pandemic, approximately 19.4 million school-age children not currently in an afterschool program would be enrolled if one were available to them. Clearly, a vast majority of working parents want and need engaging afterschool and summer academic enrichment opportunities, provided with qualified adult supervision, for their children in the 5-14 age group. This need is even more acute – particularly for low- and moderate-income children and youth, often of color – due to the widespread learning losses incurred and continuing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Community Learning and Tech Hubs in school neighborhoods throughout the South and across America could help children and families catch up and keep up with learning and technology.   Engaged learning opportunities can enhance K-12 schooling, as well as enable working parents to pursue their employment in order to provide for their families and contribute to our economy. School-community partnerships could match parents’ work, job search, and college schedules. Workforce training programs and community colleges could host Community Learning and Tech Hubs

Many provisions of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) – including almost $30 billion for expansion and improvement of comprehensive afterschool and summer enrichment and $39 billion for childcare – are great funding resources for developing Community Learning and Tech Hubs or something like them. If this were done nationwide, at least 40,000 schools and/or their community organizations – about half of the school communities in the South and across America – could become Hubs. I commend U.S. Education Secretary Cardona for launching a partnership with the nation’s governors and school chiefs to help states utilize ARPA funding to develop high-quality summer learning and enrichment programs for all students, particularly those disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

To that end, I would urge that state and local leaders think boldly and consider investing some of the recovery monies to establish Community Learning and Technology Hubs, or something similar, as well as support:

  • Current 21st Century Community Learning Center grantees to expand their sites to more locations and expand their activities to be more like the proposed Hubs;
  • Existing local and regional afterschool and summer intermediaries to expand their sites and activities;
  • Boys and Girls Clubs, Ys, Communities in Schools, and similar organizations to co-locate near or connect to many more low- and moderate- income schools and expand their activities to be more like the proposed Hubs;
  • STEAM/STEM, civics learning, and career-college pathway programs to develop comprehensive afterschool and summer enrichment opportunities so they could serve as Hubs in or near schools;
  • Current comprehensive afterschool programs to add summer academic enrichment, workforce and college pathway learning opportunities, and other Hub experiences;
  • Current summer enrichment programs to add comprehensive afterschool, workforce and college pathway learning opportunities, and other Hub activities.

I would add that Community Learning and Tech Hubs, or something similar, near or in schools should be well-designed by community partners and schools – working with community colleges, arts and cultural groups, libraries, museums, universities, parks and recreation, literacy, and STEM/STEAM organizations, among others – to include the following. 

  1. Mitigate learning losses through expanded academic enhancement opportunities for elementary-middle students before and after school, during summers, in and out of school buildings, virtually and in person by fully leveraging community and school resources and expertise.
  2. Help close the digital divide and lack of technology access for students and families.
  3. Provide engaged learning with adult supervision during out-of-school time so parents can work or upgrade their skills, as well as support elementary and middle school children’s academic, social, emotional, and physical health and development.
  4. Inspire students to learn civics, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills and the creative arts (STEAM) through coding, robotics, and arts/civics/science-integrated experiences (opportunities that may get short shrift in schools due to budget cuts) to strengthen the talent pipeline for ever-growing careers in the tech industry.
  5. Engage middle and high school students in career and college pathway opportunities, service learning and volunteerism, civic activity, and entrepreneurship projects to discover and mobilize their talents.

COVID-19 has increased dramatically the many inequities in learning opportunity, school-age childcare, and good-paying jobs. For those who need them the most, Community Learning and Tech Hubs can be a lifeline for a real recovery in learning, workforce participation, and pathways to two- and four-year colleges and high-quality training.

Richard W. (Dick) Riley is a former U.S. Secretary of Education (1993-2001) and Governor of South Carolina (1979-1987). He currently is a senior partner with Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough and its affiliate, EducationCounsel.