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Sunday, Apr 14, 2024

Think Together Ramps Up for Statewide Learning

15K part-time openings; CSUF link

Think Together, the largest after-school program operator for underserved kids in the state, is deploying an aggressive hiring push to help meet California’s goal to provide after-school programs for all high-need students in transitional kindergarten through sixth grade.

The Santa Ana educational group—Orange County’s third-largest nonprofit with $119.7 million in revenue for the 12 months ended June 30, 2022—says it is spending $5 million annually on a recruiting team to hire about 600 personnel a month, to ultimately fill 15,000 part-time roles for its after-school enrichment programs.

It’s a big step up in size for the organization, which reports having nearly 300 paid staff in OC, and some 4,100 paid staff across the state.

Amidst a labor shortage, filling that many jobs won’t be easy, Think Together founder and CEO Randy Barth said.

“We’re building this universal system,” Barth told the Business Journal. So, “it won’t get built overnight.”

However, “the money’s been appropriated,” he added.

The nonprofit currently serves about 600 schools in California, around 10% of the state’s K-12 educational footprint.

Within five years, it aims to grow its student population sixfold to serve 1 million students.

State Funding

A California bill passed in 2021 is giving Think Together the financial support it needs to hire many more after-school educators.

The bill, AB 130, supplies $1.75 billion in state funding so local educational agencies can offer learning programs outside of school hours for all high-need students, including kids who are English learners, homeless, in foster care, or in the migrant education program.

It’s California’s first bill that aims to provide after-school services for all high-need students, Think Together officials said. Prior to AB 130, after-school programs often ­lacked sufficient federal and state funding.

“Before the pandemic, education was woefully underfunded,” Think Together Director of Communications Elena Bosch told the Business Journal. “The pandemic sort of widened the eyes of folks on Capitol Hill to say, ‘we can’t under-resource these kids anymore.’”

About 63% of California’s K-12 student population comprises of high-need students, according to data from the California Department of Education (CDE). Orange County’s high-need students, by comparison, make up 53% of the student population. Think Together reported serving about 60,000 students in OC last year.

By 2026, the state funding for learning programs geared at high-need students is expected to grow to $5 billion.

School districts are using that funding from the state to contract Think Together’s services, which include early learning programs, after-school programs, consulting for education leaders as well as tutoring, arts, STEM, and physical education classes.

ELO-P’s Reach

The new policy enabled by AB 130, called the Expanded Learning Opportunities Program (ELO-P), advances Think Together’s goal to close the learning gap between poor students and students of color.

“The performance between white and Asian kids, on average, is about five years ahead of Black and Latino students,” Barth said.

The transition to remote learning exacerbated this performance gap, as the pandemic forced Black, Latino and low-income students back into their homes, many of which lack access to Wi-Fi, a quiet learning space, basic safety and food security, Barth said.

According to US Census data in July 2020, about 25% of Black students and 26% of Latino students across the country either sometimes, rarely or never had access to a computer for educational purposes.

By comparison, 14% of white students and less than 1% of Asian students lacked consistent access to a learning device.

To help close the learning gap worsened by the pandemic, ELO-P extends high-need students’ time at school from six to nine hours and the school year from 180 to 210 days. The additional time allows schools to provide high-need students supplemental learning programs, which aim to not only help students with classwork but also cultivate students’ extracurricular passions and create a safe space with social, emotional support where they can learn.

“When kids find a passion, that ignites their interest in learning,” California Department of Education Director, Expanded Learning Division, Michael Funk, told the Business Journal.

“If you don’t have those [social, emotional] precursors, you can shove a lot of content at them, but if they’re distracted and freaked out over other issues, it’s not going to sink in,” Barth added.

Think Together’s after-school programs, on top of tutoring and homework assistance, include music classes, basketball and flag football tournaments and, in the Orange Unified School District, classes for Baile Folklorico, a traditional style of dance formed by the indigenous people of Mexico.

CSUF Partnership

Think Together is getting help from local universities for its expansion of after-school services.

The nonprofit last year teamed up with California State University, Fullerton to help build its team of after-school educators.

According to the nonprofit’s founder and CEO Randy Barth, about 60% to 70% of CSUF’s more than 40,000 students are working part time.

“After-school providers and school districts need to get a bigger market share of CSUF’s part-time workforce,” Barth said.

The partnership enables CSUF students to work part time as Think Together after-school educators, teaching and designing curriculums based on their university studies for kids in transitional kindergarten through sixth grade.

“It’s actually mission-aligned with what CSUF wants to do, which is building the pipeline of kids eligible for the university and picking diverse kids that are ready for college,” Barth said.

Hiring from universities also gives college students an outlet for work experience that allows them to further hone their knowledge on their major of choice. Art students, for instance, will be leading arts programs while engineering students teach engineering classes.

As Think Together grows its after-school programs, it plans to secure partnerships similar to its one with CSUF with community colleges and other schools in the CSU system.

—Kaitlin Aquino

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