This guest post is by TSC signatory Dr. Robert Sanborn, Children at Risk’s president and CEO. It originally appeared in the El Paso Times.

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Texas youths are learning and growing 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year –not just when the school bell rings. In fact, kids spend 80 percent of their time outside of the classroom, and 1.1 million Texas students spend an average of seven hours per week unsupervised. Wouldn’t it be great if that time was spent doing activities that promote engaged learning, safe communities and a strong workforce?

Well-designed and faithfully implemented Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELOs) do just that.

There is often confusion over the definition of Expanded Learning Opportunities. The reality is that expanded learning opportunities come in many different shapes and sizes, and result

We are not talking about longer days for overworked teachers and unengaged students, or a free babysitting service after school. We are not talking about providing more time using the same instructional approach taken in a traditional classroom.  what’s essential is that students are spending more of their time engaged in productive activitiesin a host of positive outcomes. Extending the hours in a school day, extending the days in a school year, and providing learning programs before and after school, on weekends, and over breaks are all models for expanding learning. The extra time can be used for academic support and tutoring as well as mentoring, enrichment, and physical activity. There are multiple options for implementation; what’s essential is that students are spending more of their time engaged in productive activities.

We are talking about programs that provide enriching activities designed to meet the needs of individual students, in partnership with community-based organizations and with an emphasis on family engagement. These programs let students explore classroom concepts in more depth, using a hands-on approach and with an emphasis on outcomes and continuous improvement. The data clearly indicate that within the current school design, Texas students are failing to master basic subjects, and these deficiencies are even greater across low-income and minority populations. Increasing time spent on tasks in the classroom through extending the school day and/or year has demonstrated proven success in increasing academic performance and closing achievement gaps. High-quality after-school and summer programs in Texas have shown improvements in test scores, grade promotion rates, behavior, and discipline problems. Data also show that the hours between 3 and 6 p.m. are peak times for experimentation with drugs, alcohol, and sex. Programs before and after school, on weekends, and during breaks create safe places for children to spend positive time when not in the classroom.

Furthermore, with 68 percent of Texas K-12 students in households where all parents are in the workforce, expanded learning programs allow parents to feel a sense of security knowing their child is spending time outside of school productively. This, in turn, lets parents stay focused on their jobs at 3 p.m., which is good news for Texas businesses.

Expanded learning opportunities are nationally recognized as a key strategy to improve academic achievement and the overall success of youth. Texas has the opportunity during this 83rd legislative session to continue the dialogue on expanded learning opportunities for our students, following Lt. Gov. Dewhurst’s interim charge from last session to study after-school and extended learning time programs. Recently, the House Education Committee heard House Bill 384 (companion Senate Bill 503, West) authored by state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, which proposes the establishment of an Expanded Learning Opportunities Council. This council will bring together the most relevant, influential stakeholders from a diverse set of perspectives to examine and make policy recommendations regarding the provision of expanded learning services, best practices, and ways to leverage public and private investments outside the traditional school day.

We urge support for HB 384 and SB 503 to give learning communities the chance to meet those needs.

Texas students deserve it.