Advancing the Important Work of Community Learning Hubs

Insights   05 May 2021


Hubs leverage facilities and partnerships in new ways to offer easily accessible locations staffed by community leaders, caring educators, and youth development experts. Often, they are located within walking distance of residential areas and tap staff from afterschool providers.

Afterschool Alliance

This article is adapted from a published Afterschool Alliance resource that documents the increased prevalence of Community Learning Hubs in the United States.

If we dare to imagine the creation and spread of dynamic learner-centered ecosystems—where learning communities, local organizations, businesses and industry experts, libraries, families, and community elders play a role in enriching a young person’s learning journey—we don’t have to look very far to uncover the pieces of that ecosystem already at work. 

In this bold vision of education, young people would not be bound by time or to a single building—because the prevailing mindset would be that learning happens anywhere and everywhere. Instead, learners would have consistent access to the community assets they need to pursue their unique interests, build the skills suited to their unique strengths, and follow a learning journey of their own making. 

At the heart of these ecosystems of learning would be relationships, equity, and a shared embrace of the interconnectedness of everyone in a particular community. That interconnectedness would see whole communities take the initiative to meet the needs of learners and their families. 

Examples of this can be found in the Community Learning Hubs that emerged over the last 13 months to do just that. These hubs evolved to support the health and wellbeing of community members and give young people safe spaces to learn and feel more connected to their broader environment.

The Emergence of Community Learning Hubs

In the Spring of 2020, as the pandemic swept across the country—disrupting the education system, upending learners’ and families’ lives, and, overnight, exponentially increasing demand for social service and well-being supports—afterschool programs and community organizations came together. 

Seeking innovative solutions to provide more learners with access to in-person, safe learning opportunities, organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, YMCA, Beacons Centers, and, smaller, local community providers designed new models to open their program doors to all children. These efforts resulted in Community Learning Hubs, which unlike pre-pandemic afterschool programs, operate all day long for learners whose learning communities are on hybrid or fully virtual schedules.

Community Learning Hubs are community-driven efforts to support young peoples’ learning and well-being, providing safe places to connect to online schooling, caring adults, and additional services. During this historic time, Community Learning Hubs have become a lifeline for learners enrolled in virtual and/or hybrid learning models—giving them a safe place to be throughout the day and, in some cases, evenings.

For many of these young people, learning at home is difficult or impossible for a variety of reasons; and for all learners, hubs present an essential opportunity to connect with other learners and supportive adults and have access to virtual academics and in-person, socially distanced educational opportunities in an environment that follows strict COVID-19 safety protocols. 

Hubs leverage facilities and partnerships in new ways to offer easily accessible locations staffed by community leaders, caring educators, and youth development experts. Often, they are located within walking distance of residential areas and tap staff from afterschool providers.

Documenting a Growing Trend

To understand how afterschool programs are serving children and youth in Community Learning Hubs, the Afterschool Alliance conducted interviews with 32 afterschool programs, intermediaries, or school districts in 18 states. The featured programs represent the diversity of the afterschool field and encompass programs located in urban, rural, and suburban communities. 

Their conversations resulted in the design of a guide, adapted below, that provides considerations, lessons, and inspiration for communities hoping to bring to fruition their own learning hubs. 

This project builds on the work the Afterschool Alliance completed in partnership with the National League of Cities, to write the report, “Building Community Learning Hubs.” 

These real-world examples show the myriad ways communities can build self-sustaining Community Learning Hubs, all of which include two key ingredients: one, hubs conceived through approaches deeply based in a community, and; two, hubs designed in partnership with a diversity of voices and perspectives. 

Why Community-Based Partnerships?

During the pandemic, collaboration across school districts, community organizations, the private sector, faith-based organizations, and philanthropies have helped ensure that youth still have access to critical supports. In these examples, community partnerships have been facilitating access to meals, educational resources, and social and emotional supports, as well as helping children and youth successfully participate in virtual learning. 

These collaborations are largely responsible for the success of Community Learning Hubs. This is evidence that partnerships with community-based organizations can not only provide facilities, learning experiences, funding, PPE supplies, and additional resources and services, but they also can help address the immediate and most pressing needs of youth and their families. 

Additionally, partnering with learning communities and school districts has allowed Community Learning Hubs to support virtual learning by ensuring learners have had powerful learning experiences throughout the pandemic.

These partnerships can take on different forms depending on the organization that is leading the work. Two of the most common forms are 1) afterschool intermediary-led partnerships and 2) community organization-led partnerships.

Afterschool Intermediary-led Partnerships

Intermediaries are organizations and initiatives that coordinate and establish relationships between learning communities, community-based organizations, afterschool programs, and other entities in their communities. Due to their role in supporting city-wide afterschool program networks, intermediaries are a natural fit to coordinate Community Learning Hubs. Examples, featuring organizations in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest, include The Kalamazoo Youth Development Network, Madison Out of School Time, MyCom, and Portland Public Schools.

The Kalamazoo Youth Development Network in Michigan is working with community partners to provide learning experiences for their students, including a nature center in one neighborhood to provide hands-on, science-focused activities and various art organizations providing virtual art activities. The network was also able to coordinate fundraising efforts to raise money to support the hubs’ financial needs.

Madison Out of School Time in Wisconsin utilized their relationship with the school district to support Community Learning Hubs. This intermediary is a part of the city government and well-positioned to work with the school district to provide meals, snacks, nurses for COVID-19 screenings, and social workers, among other resources for participating programs.

MyCom in Cleveland, Ohio coordinated an organized effort among afterschool programs in their community. The intermediary funded 32 organizations to host Community Learning Hubs, or pods. The pods are hosted by organizations with a wide variety of experiences, including seasoned out-of-school time professionals and new organizations. 

MyCom coordinated a community of practice for the programs, which included weekly calls to provide professional development. As an intermediary, MyCom was also able to coordinate relationships between the school district and the programs, which helped with placing children and youth into programs in their communities.

Portland Public Schools in Portland, Maine is working with many community organizations, such as Breakwater School and Portland Community Squash. Portland Public Schools is providing meals, and organizations are using a combination of charter buses and school-provided buses to transport students to and from the programs. 

The district emphasized that to best utilize community partnerships, community partners should be assigned to certain schools. As communication between community partners can be a struggle, the program advises instituting a centralized place for partners to share information and connect.

Community Organization-led Partnerships

While intermediaries provide access to a community’s entire suite of learning providers, community-based organizations themselves, including afterschool and youth development programs, can provide just as great of an impact when leading partnership development. San Francisco Beacons, Fleet Science Center, and YMCA of Rogue Valley provide examples of how community-based organizations can support Community Learning Hubs.

San Francisco Beacons worked with the city’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) to coordinate the country’s first Community Learning Hubs through the Community Hubs Initiative. The initiative is “a Citywide, neighborhood-based strategy to support children, youth, and families during the school year. Community Hubs provide support for students in grades K-12 who are utilizing SFUSD’s Distance Learning Curriculum, and prioritize children and youth with high levels of need.”

To divide up the work of managing the Community Learning Hubs, Beacons provided coordination to other community-based organizations by offering programming design insights and staffing to the hubs, while DCYF coordinated the facilities, distribution of PPE, and funding.

The Fleet Science Center in San Diego, California, worked with community partners to identify families who needed the most significant level of support to inform service support distribution. They then launched Distance Learning Hubs that ensure students can connect with their classroom teacher and online school curriculum; and engage students in fun hands-on science-based learning activities that build enthusiasm for science and encourage collaboration amongst students.

The YMCA of Rogue Valley partnered with four school districts in the region to host hubs in their schools. Additionally, in partnership with their local children’s museum, the YMCA received funding for programs held in conjunction with their local museum.

The Foundation of an Ecosystem of Learning

Community Learning Hubs are perfect examples of the dormant potential that exists in urban, suburban, and rural communities to sustainably leverage local assets to support the learning and well-being of young people and their families. 

We know that no single entity, organization, or agency can be fully responsible for sustaining a community. So, why would we assume a single entity (i.e. schools) should be fully responsible for providing just about everything a child needs to grow and develop into a thriving adult? Why not imagine how to use the momentum, innovation, and transformation sparked in communities across the country by pandemic-driven needs to transform Community Learning Hubs into fully formed ecosystems of learning?

Why not call upon local foundations and governments to provide necessary funding to iterate? Why not build permanent bus routes from learning communities to a local YMCA? Why not make museums the place where young people meet to learn about history or science? Why not design a space in a library to host a group of learners three days a week, every week? Why not give young people credit for coordinating a food drive at a local food bank or leading the design of a community garden program? Why not include learning periods at a local wellness center that offer yoga and meditation courses to young people? 

What if all community-based learning opportunities were all considered going to “school”? What would that make possible for young people, their families, and their communities?

With the emergence of Community Learning Hubs, the design of ecosystems of learning becomes tangible. And, if we (advocates, educators, practitioners, non-profits, philanthropies, youth-led advocacy groups, and more) are willing to let go of returning to a normal that no longer serves learners and that keeps entities and individuals in a community operating in silos, progress is possible.

What’s most striking is not that these Community Learning Hubs organically formed, which is in itself an important observation, but that organizations were so eager to provide the resources and leverage the relationships to maintain them. This speaks to the hunger that exists to do education differently and to make the learning, wellbeing, and support of young people not peripheral, but central to how communities thrive. 

Josh Schachter from CommunityShare put it beautifully during a panel conversation on How to Leverage Community Assets for Powerful Learning:

“It’s really about investing in an ecosystemic approach versus investing in the dots…How do we invest in the interstitial tissue of the lines between the dots that foster a collective commitment to something greater than each of the dots?”

How do we connect the dots? There have been great examples from across the country for how we can begin doing this. And, it doesn’t require a pandemic to keep the momentum going. If we believe in a transformed future for education—one that is equitable, community-driven, and learner-centered—there is no reason this work won’t continue spreading.

New resources and news on The Big Idea!


We recently announced a new R&D acceleration initiative to connect and support local communities ready to bring public, equitable, learner-centered ecosystems to life.