James Kramer: Simpson Street Free Press can address gap

Wisconsin State Journal Guest Editorial

Originally published December 22, 2012

I am disappointed to hear some local leaders suggest we search other cities for solutions to our achievement gaps. Locally driven solutions are often best. There are many excellent examples right here in southern Wisconsin. AVID/TOPS shows real promise. This innovative school-community partnership is gaining national attention.  

The real question for Dane County is do we back the best ideas? Do we get the best results?

Simpson Street Free Press (SSFP) is another example of local strategies at work for local kids. SSFP is Madison’s non-profit after-school academy. We are Dane County’s all-academics youth center. We emphasize core subject curriculum: science, geography, books, history, the arts. Students guide their assignments through endless revisions and edits. Almost every SSFP student succeeds at school.

According to the National Endowment for the Humanities “SSFP is pioneering innovative new ways to apply integrated curriculum in after-school settings.” The UW-System has five times recognized SSFP for “innovative approaches to science learning.” The President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities says, “These strategies should be replicated.”

Why look elsewhere? SSFP curriculum is ready to go. You might say it’s shovel ready. Rather than working in silos or duplicating each other’s efforts, let’s replicate what works.

National data reinforces what we already know; rigorous core academics in after-school settings works. Timely investment in youth leaders works. Writing across the curriculum works. School-community partnerships and collaboration across age groups work.

SSFP methods support in-school learning. Professional behavior is required. Older students assist younger students. They teach the newsroom systems and help with homework. SSFP is a real job, and kids buy in. Students quickly learn to apply these skills in any classroom. Students quickly gain academic confidence.

Some will question whether these high-quality methods can be cost effective. It’s a valid question. But SSFP is extremely efficient. For 20 years we’ve done all this without a single full-time employee. We get small amounts of base funding, but we raise most of the money ourselves. We know the principles of bang for the buck.

Ripple effects and multipliers make SSFP very cost effective. Our students are leaders and role models. They contribute to civic discourse. They start book clubs. SSFP fosters young writers and readers, and spreads a mantra of academic success throughout Dane County.

Bridging achievement gaps requires actively engaged, firmly committed local young people. Former students now run many SSFP programs. Experienced adult volunteers support them. SSFP students learn the most practical of skills, and their publications inspire other kids. Every parent knows how effective peer-to-peer messages can be. It’s a winning formula.

The National Partnership for Quality After-school Learning says, “Writing and literacy are areas where out-of-school programs can have the most impact.” So, I suggest some implementation. Right now SSFP is in negotiations with an out-of-town landlord. We need help to expand our anchor facility. There is a new SSFP newsroom at Glendale School. We plan more. One thing we can do right now is get kids off SSFP waiting lists and into SSFP programs.

National data can help predict success, but local results matter most. In this case both say the same thing: SSFP-style methods work.

Kramer is executive director of the Simpson Street Free Press; jkramer@ssfpnews.org.