Children and youth in grades K-12 spend only 18.5 percent of their waking hours in the formal classroom environment. So where are they spending the rest of their time? As the number of working parents increases, more and more youth are coming home to empty homes after school. It is during these unsupervised hours when juvenile crime and victimization increases drastically, and youth miss opportunities to learn, create and problem solve. Expanded learning opportunities provide fun, enriching, safe environments where students can explore, learn, create and build life skills that will prove invaluable as they grow and develop into competent, caring adults.

Expanded learning opportunities, or ELOs, is a term that is increasingly being used to describe before and after-school programs and summer learning programs that adhere to certain principles of quality. Expanded learning opportunities provide extended academic enrichment and engagement. ELOs improve academic achievement and help prepare youth for their future by providing hands-on learning experiences. ELO programs help youth develop team-building skills, leadership skills and critical-thinking skills; skills that are a necessity as they move into adulthood.

To be successful, ELO systems must leverage community resources to provide instruction in a variety of interest areas, create experiential learning opportunities and build sustainability for the programs. They must become community-wide. At the heart of strong community-wide ELO systems are partnerships between schools, community organizations and businesses. These community partners bring unique skills and resources that contribute to the quality and sustainability of ELO programs. Partnerships with businesses and organizations can be built for many purposes, such as expanded volunteerism, increasing program quality, expanding resources/materials and increasing advocacy for the program.

Leveraging the expertise of community partners can increase the quality of ELO programs by bringing in experts in a variety of subjects. High-quality ELO programs not only provide educational hands-on learning experiences, they foster many characteristics of positive youth development. Characteristics such as community engagement and citizenship; leadership and conflict resolution; and development of patience, responsibility and discipline are all components of ELO programs. By bringing in community partners, these programs also foster positive youth-adult relationships, an important component of youth development.

Community partnerships not only benefit the program but can benefit the community organizations and businesses that invest in the programs. ELO programs provide children of working parents with a safe, enriching environment so parents do not have to worry about where their children are or what they are doing. This provides businesses and organizations the benefit of having fewer working parents absent because of child care issues. Businesses and organizations that invest in ELO programs in their community not only have to worry less about employees missing work, they are also investing in and growing the workforce of the 21st century.

To learn more about how you can support expanded learning opportunities in the community, contact the local 4-H Extension educator or other youth-serving organizations. Help build a better tomorrow by investing in youth today.

Information shared comes from resources provided by Nebraska Beyond School Bells, Afterschool Alliance and Nebraska Extension. This article comes from a series of resources developed by Nebraska Extension, 4-H youth development professionals.

Jill A. Goedeken is a University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension educator-4H and youth development. She can be reached by phone at 402-563-4901, by email at jgoedeken2@unl.edu or on Twitter @JillGoedeken. To learn more about 4-H at 4h.unl.edu, follow them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Nebraska4H/ or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/nebraska4h.

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