July 18, 2011 — David W. Grissmer and Andrew J. Mashburn, researchers at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, have received a $2.8 million grant to evaluate the effectiveness of the "WINGS for Kids" afterschool social and emotional learning program at four elementary schools in Charleston, S.C.
Ginny Deerin, a marketing executive and political fundraiser, founded the WINGS afterschool program in 1996 to serve children attending low-performing schools in high-risk neighborhoods in North Charleston. The children in these four schools and in the study experience extreme levels of economic and social risks; more than 90 percent receive free or reduced lunch.
The program seeks to teach students how to make good decisions and build healthy relationships. The 15-hour-a-week curriculum weaves 30 learning objectives into everyday activities that develop self-awareness, relationship skills, social awareness, self-management and responsible decision-making.
"Once children enter school, the afterschool hours before parents get home from work are critical periods for kids," Mashburn said. Many afterschool programs have been established to address the need to keep kids safe and constructively engaged during these hours, but rarely do these programs have evidence that what seems effective really is effective.
"Past evaluations provide encouraging evidence that the WINGS program has successfully impacted learning outcomes for kids," Mashburn said.
One study found that students who enrolled in two or more years of WINGS passed state standardized math and reading assessments at significantly higher rates than non-WINGS students. More years in WINGS also correlated with better grades and improved school attendance.
"The purpose of this grant is to provide a more rigorous evaluation of the WINGS afterschool program than has previously been possible, and in doing so we will be working with a large number of children and assessing the program's impacts on a broad range of academic and social outcomes across three years," Mashburn said. "This type of rigorous comprehensive longitudinal evaluation is very important for determining the effectiveness of this program."
Grissmer, a principal research scientist, and Mashburn, a senior scientist, work at the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, a research center based at the Curry School that conducts empirical research to improve schooling and the outcomes for children.
Because more students apply for the WINGS program each year than can be accommodated, each school holds a lottery to determine which kindergartners may enroll, Mashburn explained. This circumstance will enable the researchers to be even more confident that any improvements they see can be attributed to the WINGS program.
"We will be able to conduct a randomized control trial comparing the social skills and achievement outcomes of students who were selected to enroll in WINGS with students not able to enroll, and to follow both groups over an extended period of time," he said.
Grissmer and Mashburn will examine students who start kindergarten in fall 2012 and follow them for three years. Students who start kindergarten in fall 2013 and fall 2014 will also participate, and more than 300 children will be tracked over the course of the study.
"The evidence is beginning to point to stronger social and emotional skills as a critically missing part of our national educational policy, which currently focuses almost entirely on academic achievement," Grissmer said. Evidence suggests that children's long-term outcomes are improved not only by gains in cognitive skills, but also gains in social and emotional skills, such as those emphasized in the WINGS program.
The research team, which includes Julia Blodgett, Elizabeth Cottone, Nancy Deutsch, and Sara Rimm-Kaufman from the Curry School, as well as assistant professor Laura Brock from the College of Charleston, who earned her Ph.D. from U.Va., will assess students' behaviors and relationships at home and at school, as well as reading skills, oral vocabulary, listening comprehension and mathematics skills. They will also conduct teacher surveys, parent interviews and classroom observations.
The four-year grant is being funded by the Institute for Education Sciences, part of the U.S. Department of Education.
In 2009, WINGS was named a "high-performing nonprofit" by the Alliance for Effective Social Investing, and has been recognized as representing best practices by the Academy for Educational Development, the National Institute of Out-of-School Time and the National Association of Elementary School Principals.