A New Learning Day: After School Is No Afterthought

Learning supplants leisure as the primary focus of after-school programs.

Learning supplants leisure as the primary focus of after-school programs.
A New Learning Day: After School Is No Afterthought
Credit: Thomas Reis

Time was that after-school programs gave kids a place to hang out, supervised, until their parents got off work. Students dabbled in arts and crafts, recreational sports, and other activities more typical of summer camp than of school. Most anything that smacked of academics was optional.

No longer. Today's comprehensive after-school programs -- those that operate at least four days a week and blend an academic component with enrichment activities -- intellectually nourish students traversing a harsher educational landscape that features fewer extras.

Educators have narrowed their class time to improve student performance in math, reading, and other basics in the wake of stricter state and federal standards, including those required under the No Child Left Behind Act.

That's not the only mandate of after-school programs. They are increasingly called on to strengthen student learning in science, technology, engineering, and math -- areas considered key to America's global competitiveness.

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"The pressures of education today are going to naturally turn to these after-school hours," said Jennifer Stedron, an education program manager at the National Conference of State Legislatures, in Washington, DC.

In addition, after-school programs satisfy a social as well as an academic need. Three-fourths of single parents with school-age children in the United States are employed, and in more than half of U.S. households with two parents, both work, leaving millions of students unsupervised after school -- a troubling situation for adolescents, in particular, who are at higher risk for getting into trouble between 3 and 6 P.M. than during any other time of day.

Although programs already serve 6.5 million children, nearly 15 million students remain unsupervised each day. "The demand is still far greater than the supply," said Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, a national advocacy and research organization in Washington, DC.

All these demands come at a time when federal financing of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers after-school programs has been kept constant since 2002, leaving state and local governments and nonprofit foundations to shoulder more of the costs.

It's a tall order for a movement that, until the mid-1990s, was community based and locally driven, with virtually no federal involvement. Until then, organizations, such as local YMCAs and Boys & Girls Clubs, sponsored after-school programs to give at-risk students a safe place to go after school. Today, the field has expanded significantly; more than 8,700 communities and public schools nationwide offer after-school programs. During the 2003-04 school year alone, one-third of public schools offered programs before and after school, according to the latest School and Staffing Survey released by the federal government's National Center for Education Statistics.

Doing It Right

As the needs put on after-school programs rise, so, too, do the organizational and political skills of advocates and providers. Proponents spend endless hours striving to meet the demands both of parents and educators who want convenient and high-quality programs and of funders -- public, nonprofit, and private -- who want statistical evidence that these programs work.

"The after-school movement is really muscling up," William White, president of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, told grantees from after-school programs attending a meeting in Arlington, Virginia, last fall that examined the state and the future of after-school programs. (The foundation has donated more than $100 million to support after-school programs and research.)

The federal government's financial investment in after-school programs is substantial; it provides $3.65 billion a year to after-school programs through seven major funding streams, according to conservative estimates by the Finance Project, in Washington, DC. That includes nearly $1 billion annually for 21st Century Community Learning Centers, funded by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), and $1.2 billion through the Child Care and Development Fund of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Funding at the state and local levels is so vast and diverse that experts who track spending on after-school programs won't venture to offer a national total. "We really don't have a handle on that," said Sharon Deich, associate director of the Finance Project. However, she attributes any growth in spending on after-school programs to state and local sources.

Nonprofit and private foundations -- the Mott Foundation, the Wallace Foundation, the William T. Grant Foundation, and the JC Penney Afterschool Fund, among others -- remain major supporters of after-school programs, providing grants to local programs and, at the national level, financing evaluation studies. And in Washington, DC, national organizations such as the Afterschool Alliance work to disseminate research, increase public awareness, and advocate on Capitol Hill.

On the ground, doing it right means designing programs that artfully combine strong academic supports with an array of engaging enrichment activities. That's not just about satisfying the politicians, however; it's about serving students. At the grassroots level, after-school providers share curricula, training approaches, and sustainability models through statewide networks in thirty-two states.

That's critical. Given the national political landscape -- especially the impending reauthorization of NCLB this year, under which federally supported after-school programs are funded -- the movement faces a time rich with opportunity but fraught with challenges and tensions. How can programs enhance academic performance without reverting to the skill-and-drill activities that would send students streaming for the exits? How does the field encourage diversity in programming while simultaneously increasing quality? How can researchers prove whether, and how, nontraditional learning activities engage students and keep them in school? And how can providers guarantee sustainability at a time of uncertain funding?

A New Learning Day: After School Is No Afterthought
Credit: Thomas Reis

Stealth Learning

Advocates say the answers boil down to program quality and evaluation. If the first criterion isn't satisfactory, students won't show up. Without the second, funders won't open their pocketbooks, because the days of justifying after-school programs on altruistic merit alone are long past.

Certainly, the field is replete with innovative models. In Chicago's After School Matters program, for example, high school students are given paid apprenticeships in fields such as technology, journalism, and sports, in which they design Web sites, work at local newspapers or at the studios of the city's cable-access network, and take lifeguard and camp-counselor classes. A middle school program run by the Dallas Independent School District offered marching band as one of its enrichment activities. In Alliance, Ohio, the Navigators after-school program -- which serves almost half of the middle school population -- offers cooking, robotics, and, for students bused to a local YMCA, fitness and nutrition classes.

The After-School Corporation (TASC), in New York City, facilitates and monitors 170 programs that combine strong academic elements with enrichment activities as varied as cooking classes for elementary students, a middle school robotics program, and a poetry club in which high school students perform their work in public. (The nonprofit organization, which serves 40,000 students, contracts with community-based organizations to run the comprehensive after-school programs in the city's public schools.)

"What brings kids to the programs -- and, in some cases, to school, because they want to attend the after-school activities -- are activities that may not look like learning," says TASC president Lucy Friedman. "It's stealth learning." Students in the cooking class use math to calculate recipe measurements and chemistry in mixing ingredients. They employ problem-solving and group-work skills to negotiate the prep work before cooking.

For students and teachers, working together in a nonacademic environment can change perceptions on both sides, Friedman adds. When the students in the poetry club at New York City's Martin Luther King Jr. Arts and Technology High School performed their works at a local Barnes & Noble bookstore, for example, teachers who attended saw their students in a new light. "It changed the whole dynamic," Friedman says. "They really could see that this is a way of connecting to the kids in a way they didn't connect during the school day."

But Friedman and other after-school leaders know that to attract and keep donors, they must prove, conclusively and quantitatively, that programs improve school attendance and enhance student learning and performance on standardized assessment tests.

It hasn't always been that way. After-school programs have been around for a century, originally offered by national community organizations such as YMCAs, Robert Halpern wrote in Making Play Work. They offered recreational activities such as sports, as well as vocational training and leadership clubs, to otherwise unsupervised students. In the 1970s, many after-school programs were modeled on the community-schools approach, which links after-school programs to a community's unofficial educational resources -- local artists, musicians, scientists, and others who want to teach part time -- says Steven Fowler, a communications consultant in California who has worked on after-school issues for more than a decade.

Things began to radically change in the late 1990s, when after-school programs saw an infusion of federal support with the creation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. The program supports the creation of facilities that provide added academic opportunities for children, particularly students who attend high-poverty or lower-performing schools. From 1998 to 2002, federal investment in after-school programs increased from just $40 million to nearly $1 billion. Originally, local education agencies competed for grants directly through the DOE. Grantees were required to establish programs that met the specific needs of a community, which could mean arts education in one place and character education in another.

Since that initial phase, several major changes have occurred. In 1998, the DOE added two requirements for 21st Century Community Learning Centers programs: They have to include activities that expand learning opportunities for children and that contribute to reduced drug use and violence. And in 2002, after reauthorization of the program under NCLB, the grant process devolved to state governments.

The role of academics in after-school programs became more pronounced when President George W. Bush made education reform a keystone of his administration. NCLB requires schools to close the achievement gap so that all students acquire academic proficiency in key basic subjects, including reading, math, and science. In many low-performing schools, the requirements have resulted in the redirection of resources to prepare students for standardized tests -- sometimes at the expense of arts and culture classes.

Since then, large-scale comprehensive programs, such as LA's BEST (Better Educated Students for Tomorrow), in Los Angeles, and the TASC programs have worked to combine academic supports with enrichment activities; they deliberately don't repeat what's already happening in class.

The TASC's Lucy Friedman offers a succinct mission statement for her organization: Keep after-school programs connected to, but different from, the regular school-day instruction. It does that by requiring members of an after-school program at a given school to be in constant communication with school personnel. Every program has a site coordinator employed by the community-based organization that runs it. Most meet regularly with the principal and teachers, attend school staff meetings, and are on school-leadership teams. Some schools go even further, inviting after-school instructors to attend parent-teacher conferences with regular classroom teachers. Conversely, many regular classroom teachers do double duty by teaching in the after-school programs.

Smaller programs have similar approaches.

"Nationally, you're seeing the melding of the youth-development approach and the academic approach," says Rosie Buzzas, director of the Flagship after-school programs, which serve more than 4,000 students, from elementary school through high school, in Missoula, Montana. The Flagship program, which operates sites at ten schools, was originally designed to help prevent substance abuse and other high-risk behaviors.

Buzzas speaks movingly about would-be dropouts who stay in school so they can attend after-school enrichment activities. The focus is especially important in a state where children start drinking alcohol as early as the fifth grade, she says.

But Buzzas depends on more than anecdotes to make the case that programs help students succeed in school. According to a recent three-year survey funded in part by the Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund Foundation, Flagship students felt more attached to school and to the community, and two-thirds reported doing better in school because of their after-school support.

Buzzas has learned the value of such evidence thanks to her other job -- she's a Democratic state legislator in the Montana House of Representatives.

Because she faces tough choices as a state lawmaker, Buzzas preaches a tough-love message to after-school advocates who lobby for support: Arm yourself with statistics. Invite lawmakers and other potential grantors to visit programs and meet the students who attend. Perform rigorous evaluation of programs, and refine them accordingly. And speak with a clear, unified voice about program opportunities and challenges.

"Lawmakers need to see data and outcomes," Buzzas says. "People will ask me, 'Why do we have to be political about this?' And I just tell them, 'That's the way it works.'"

Sandra McBrayer agrees, based on her extensive experience of selling after-school programs to California state lawmakers, both as chief executive officer of San Diego's Children's Initiative, an intermediary agency that helps local after-school programs secure grants, and, more recently, as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's chief representative on after-school issues.

"It's the only way you're going to get support," she says. "I never step in front of any elected official without hard numbers."

In her role as the governor's top advocate on after-school programs, McBrayer is overseeing the rollout of $550 million for enhanced and new after-school programs for elementary schools and middle schools under Proposition 49, which passed in 2002. Grants will pay for about 2,000 additional programs in California early next year. All told, state and federal money will support more than 5,000 programs and serve roughly half a million students -- and that doesn't count the hundreds of thousands of children in privately funded programs, such as some run by Boys & Girls Clubs and YMCAs, as well as private fee-based activities, she adds.

Keep It Going

To sustain programs, McBrayer says, advocates and providers must tailor their pitches. When seeking money from a state law-enforcement committee, for example, she produces statistics showing that participants in after-school programs have fewer school suspensions and contacts with police. Speaking before an education committee, she'll emphasize how students in most such programs meet or exceed proficiency levels on California's standardized tests. Talk their language, she advises, and potential funders will "sit up and listen."

Jodi Grant, with the national Afterschool Alliance, uses the same approach with members of Congress. Previously a U.S. Senate staffer -- she worked for Massachusetts senator John Kerry and former senator Tom Daschle, of South Dakota -- Grant identifies potential supporters on Capitol Hill by learning about their pet issues.

Last year, the organization persuaded New Mexico senator Pete Domenici to sign on as a sponsor of the national "Lights On" day for after-school programs. Grant's pitch? She described how after-school programs sometimes partner with mental-health providers, who can assess and diagnose students with problems. Because Domenici is a leader on such issues -- he proposed the first congressional legislation calling for mental-health parity in insurance coverage -- the appeal worked.

"Here was an opportunity to get a member of Congress involved in after-school programs who wasn't necessarily one of our biggest supporters before," Grant says.

Although the recent leadership turnover in Congress could have a positive impact on the funding of after-school programs, advocates say it is unlikely that legislators will back off their demands for proof of academic gains and student participation.

The DOE, for example, will continue to invest heavily in evaluation. "We're asking, 'Can well-designed, well-delivered programs make a difference?'" says Robert Stonehill, who, as deputy director of the department's Academic Improvement and Teacher Quality Programs, oversees the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program.

Stonehill is well aware of criticisms of a major study of after-school programs by Mathematica Policy Research, which found that after-school programs have few positive impacts on participants' academic performance. But he contends that the department learned much from the study and is supporting others that will examine the relationships between after-school programs and additional academic performance indicators, such as student participation, engagement, and grades.

Nonetheless, he says, when it comes to seeking federal funds, after-school providers should make sure that their programs carry a strong academic component.

"We are first and foremost focused on how to make children achieve in school," Stonehill told the grantees from after-school programs at the meeting last year sponsored by the Mott Foundation.

"I'm not saying this means programs have to extend the school day by another hour, or that they have to be badly delivered rote programs -- they should be exciting programs -- but they should be about learning, to a large part," Stonehill elaborates. "No one argues about that. It's more what the shape of the learning looks like."

Certainly, the issue of academic achievement will be readdressed when Congress continues its work on reauthorization of NCLB, under which the 21st Century Community Learning Centers are funded. Current funding has been held at slightly under $1 billion a year since 2002 -- much less than the $2.5 billion authorized. However, appropriations seldom match the amounts authorized by Congress, Stonehill notes.

But there's already a wealth of research and evaluation on after-school programs that suggests the programs do improve participants' academic development, says Priscilla Little, associate director of the Harvard Family Research Project, which archives hundreds of studies and reports.

The next generation of studies, Little says, rather than continuing the focus on outcomes, will examine program quality: "What works well for which kids under which circumstances? And, who is not participating?"

For now, at least, the shape of learning in after-school programs remains diverse -- and that, say advocates and providers, is precisely what attracts students and, ultimately, financial support.

"We need to be careful that all programs are not one-size-fits-all," says the Afterschool Alliance's Jodi Grant. "We can't take over for schools academically, but we can provide a good supplement that helps kids apply and utilize the learning that occurs during the school day."

"Often, that applied learning creates a spark and a passion," she says. "That's what after-school can offer."

Beth Frerking has more than two decades of experience as a national reporter, Washington bureau chief, and journalism educator. She writes for print and online magazines and newspapers around the country.

This article originally published on 1/24/2007

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