California’s Golden Opportunity

California’s Golden Opportunity

Guest blog by Jeff Davis, Executive Director of the California Afterschool Network

The definition of opportunity is “a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something.”

We have a golden opportunity in California. When we look back, what will we say we did with an unprecedented set of circumstances?  

The COVID-19 Pandemic, social and racial injustice, and repeated climate crises have resulted in increased Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and trauma. This set of circumstances has also resulted in unprecedented one-time and ongoing investments in schools, Expanded Learning , child care, community schools, mental health, substance use prevention/intervention, and other human service sectors. As part of this, California’s legislators have committed to funding a universal Expanded Learning Opportunities Program. This unprecedented set of circumstances offers the potential to achieve a long-held vision. We’ve known WHAT to do all along, and now we finally have the opportunity.

What do I mean by this?

We know how to create the conditions necessary for children and youth to thrive:

Resiliency: What We Have Learned (Benard, 2004) revealed that experiences of Protective Factors (caring relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for meaningful participation) in families, schools, and communities have a profound impact on those experiencing risk factors, and result in positive cognitive, social, and emotional development contributing to long term health and wellness.

The Science of Learning and Development (SoLD) highlights that “Experiences, environments, and cultures are the defining influences on development… Although adversity can have significant negative effects, positive, nurturing, culturally-responsive, identity-safe, and instructionally-rich learning environments and experiences – in and out of school – can have profound, positive impacts on the developing brain.”

We know Multi-Sector Collaboration is key to creating those conditions:

The National Aspen Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (SEAD Commission) outlines that positive whole child development occurs in supportive learning settings that focus on cognitive, social, and emotional skill development. They recommend providing each child access to high-quality out-of-school time opportunities and aligning community resources in partnership with schools to address the whole child.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) details how supportive familial, caregiver(s), and adult relationships play a significant role in fostering positive outcomes for adolescents and recommend investments supporting adolescent development that are “multilevel and multisectoral.”

Reunite, Renew, and Thrive: SEL Roadmap for Reopening School highlights the importance of partnerships between students, families, communities, and schools supporting social and emotional development and creating access to mental health and trauma supports.

We know this has long been California’s vision:

Roadmap for Resilience: The California Surgeon General’s Report on Adverse Childhood Experiences, Toxic Stress, and Health outlines that ACEs can be buffered through caring and supportive relationships and recommends a cross-sector approach to preventing ACEs at all levels to interrupt toxic stress responses.

California’s Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission (MHSOAC) outlines a vision to transform schools into centers of wellness in their publication Every Young Heart and Mind: Schools as Centers of Wellness

California Department of Education’s Social and Emotional Learning Guiding Principles describe Whole Child Development as the goal of education, committing to equity, building capacity (of both students and adults), and creating a partnership with families and communities.

• California’s leaders support Community Schools that take a ‘whole-child’ approach to supporting students’ life success, providing and coordinating a range of on-site services and supports to overcome both academic and nonacademic barriers to students’ educational and life success. The Community Schools Playbook: A Practical Guide to Advancing Community Schools Strategies describe four Pillars of a Community School. Of the four pillars described, one is to provide “expanded and enriched learning opportunities” and another is “Active Family and Community Engagement,” which is another strength of Expanded Learning programs.

We’re learning that Equity is a verb, and it’s how we get this work done responsively:  

• Punctuating this movement, Thriving, Robust Equity, and Transformative Learning & Development: A More Powerful Conceptualization  asserts that youth programs and partnerships must be paired with intentional “Robust Equity” strategies defined as “the intentional counter to inequality, institutionalized privilege and prejudice, and systemic deficits and the intentional promotion of thriving across multiple domains for those who experience inequity and injustice.”

• They outline that transformative learning and development conditions must be paired with “Robust Equity” strategies implemented collaboratively across domains to address systemic inequities. This conceptualization of transformational learning and robust equity across multiple domains is referred to as a “learning and development ecosystem.”

• Creating a learning and development ecosystem requires individuals and systems to work with a shared understanding of the conditions necessary for youth to thrive and a collaborative, systemic approach to create those conditions.

We know that California’s Expanded Learning programs are perfectly positioned for partnership across sectors to advance this powerful and broadly shared vision:

• Before the pandemic, California already had a robust system of 4,500 Expanded Learning program sites serving over 80% of California’s low-income elementary and middle schools and nearly 350 High Schools. Recently, California made a one-time investment of $4.6 billion in Expanded Learning Opportunities Grants, and an investment of $1.75 billion in California’s 2021-22 budget for the Expanded Learning Opportunities Program. California’s decision-makers have committed to raise that investment to $5 billion in the next 3-5 years.  

The Quality Standards for Expanded Learning in California (2014) outline that Expanded Learning programs utilize “Collaborative Partnerships” with schools, families, and communities to provide environments that are “Safe and Supportive,” facilitate “Skill Building” and “Healthy Choices and Behaviors” through “Active and Engaged Learning” that surfaces “Youth Voice and Leadership” in an environment that is equitable and accessible to all.

• In 2018 the California Afterschool Network (CAN) Leadership Team created a vision to advance whole child health and wellness in partnership with California’s Expanded Learning Programs.

• In 2019 CAN launched its health and wellness journey by convening over 100 multi-sector partners create the vision and supporting data to inform a 9-month effort to create strategies to increase child, youth, family, and community wellness through multi-sector partnerships with California’s Expanded Learning programs.

• This group, the Whole Child Health and Wellness Collaborative worked through 2020 through a global pandemic, civic action to address racial and social injustice, and climate crises, to create:

o A Statement of Strategic Direction Toward Equity-Driven Whole Child Health and Wellness including appendices outlining a variety of “shared equity strategies” that any community can consider as they develop multi-sector partnerships with Expanded Learning programs to support whole children, families, and communities.

o A Whole Child Health and Wellness Call-to-Action outlining the importance to abandon “business as usual” in favor of practices that truly support the success of kids and families.  

So what is the story we want to tell?

When we look back, will we wonder why we got wrapped up in the small policy and compliance details of new funding streams? Will we wonder how or why we hardened our silos in the face of abundant resources? Will we reflect that well-intentioned efforts at ensuring accountability created unnecessary, prescriptive, complicated, and ineffective field practices? Will we wonder what all this investment ultimately meant for California?


Will we say that we seized this opportunity? That California effectively leveraged a world-renowned system of Expanded Learning programs to strengthen the conditions for children and youth to thrive. That rich partnerships between schools, Expanded Learning Programs, and community partners naturally support kids and families in meaningful ways.  

Will we say that we found a way to work through the bureaucratic barriers and silos to center our systems on the needs of our communities? That we created the systems to provide seamless access and navigation to a variety of supports for those that need them, when they need them. That we found a way to share fiscal and human resources across sectors to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. That we built the capacity of the workforce across sectors to make an honest living while fostering positive developmental outcomes for children, youth, families, and the communities of our state. Will we say that we used this time, when resources were available, to create the systems needed to support longer-term partnership and sustainability? Will we say this was the beginning of California’s communities creating rich learning and development ecosystems? Our current set of circumstances makes all of this possible.

California Afterschool Network’s priority is to ensure California seizes this moment to create collaborative ecosystems of support for whole children, youth, families, and communities. We envision compassionate communities that collaborate with Expanded Learning programs to support whole children, families, and communities so that every young person, and every family, is well-known, well-cared for, and prepared to thrive.

We know we can’t do it alone. Get in touch with us, let’s meet this moment together.

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