For a political columnist, a disadvantage of the pandemic is the limit of travel. Interesting political things are happening around America, different from Washington.
On a rare trip last month, I found an illuminated example in a surprising place: Vail, Colo. It’s an after-school and summer program called YouthPower365 that helps 4,000 to 5,000 school children in Eagle Valley, a rural county.
Let us first remove your skepticism, a sense that Vail is the playground of the wealthy. It is. But there are tens of thousands of families – waitresses, bartenders, lodgers, maintenance people, ski instructors, maids, plumbers, clerks – struggling in an expensive community.
YouthPower365, a joint effort of the Eagle County School District and the Vail Valley Foundation, serves children in these families. About 60 percent are Latinos, half living below or just slightly above the poverty line.
“Most families in Eagle County cannot afford quality, safe and healthy educational opportunities for their children beyond school hours,” said Sara Amberg, CEO of the program. A third of these families, she says, work two or three jobs, and almost a third speak a language at home other than English – mostly Spanish.
The program has an early education initiative that works with and complements Early Head Start and Head Start. From the beginning, the year-round teaching is bilingual.
When children enter primary school, there is an after-school program from 15.15 to 17.00 at 13 schools in the district. This is all optional, but the vast majority of families participate; Over 100 underpaid teachers have a chance to earn an extra $ 32 to $ 40 an hour. This year, ten of the federal Americorps volunteers are helping out.
The program offers what it calls social enrichment, music, art, shop, emotional support. However, the focus is on academics, especially for children who fall behind.
“Our core mission is to identify children who work during grade levels,” said Mike Imhof, president of the Vail Valley Foundation. A number of these families have inadequate or no internet features. This digital divide, nationally, was devastating to virtual learning and is a disadvantage even with ordinary personal schooling.
The details and priorities of the program change when students go to middle school and high school. The goal is to maintain a high level of participation.
“Many programs focus only on early childhood education, which is important,” Imhof told me, “but we strongly believe that children should be followed and offered the same opportunities through high school.”
YouthPower365 has a budget of $ 4 million. A small portion comes from corporate donations, about 15 percent from a government program, a quarter from foundations and the rest from generous donors, most of whom live in the Vail Valley.
A terrible tragedy with COVID-19 has been the learning losses that many children have experienced, which is likely to leave lasting damage. Much of the focus nationally, as it should be, is on financially distressed urban schools and families. But nearly one-fifth of children in America go to rural schools, where many families face the same economic problems and sometimes an even worse digital divide.
With most education funded by property taxes, there are significant quality inequalities in many of these rural areas, says Mara Tieken, a professor of education at Bates College who specializes in rural schools. There are other innovative rural programs, she says, where an important element is “a close relationship between parents and teachers.”
Yet Tieken notes that only about 7 percent of private philanthropic benefit goes to rural areas, limiting support to schools without resources.
Tieken says the high turnout in the Eagle County program indicates high quality. Still, she adds, “Replicability is always a challenge, as so much is context-specific.”
There are very few rural counties with Vail’s wealth capacity. But foundations, businesses, and government governments should look at YouthPower365 as a model for how to address a serious education gap in large parts of rural America.
Al Hunt is the former editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News. He previously served as a reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For nearly a quarter of a century, he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts the Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.