Offered at schools and community sites throughout the country, after-school programs have been used for years as a means to provide a safe place for children when many parents are at work and unable to provide supervision.
Backed by research that shows the hours from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. are a peak time for students to engage in dangerous, illicit, and delinquent behavior, these programs have been proven to not only reduce misbehavior, but to improve students’ motivation and attendance in school.
But today, many of these programs follow the beat of a different drummer, moving past what many considered a form of babysitting to provide offerings that complement the school day. The benefits can include enhancing students’ academic skills, fostering social-emotional development among peers, and providing opportunities for children to engage in new, hands-on learning experiences they can’t access elsewhere.
Debates over how best to staff, evaluate, and structure these programs exist, however, and the long-standing challenges with funding and sustainability that have burdened the after-school field for some time, prevail.
As more models to provide holistic education systems for students emerge, such as extended school day and community schools, the place of after-school programs in the future remains in flux. Yet with recent estimates showing that more than 15 million children are unsupervised during out-of-school time, the need to keep students occupied and learning in these hours continues to be a significant need.
Financing After School
Today’s funding landscape for after-school programs is varied, with many programs relying on a combination of public and private funding sources to cover their costs. Even with this blend of money, programs tend to claim that resources, budgets, and staffing is tight, and the demand for program slots far exceeds what can be offered.
There is one pot of federal money earmarked specifically for out-of-school programming, however. Since 1998, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program has provided formula grants to states to redistribute to agencies, districts, and community organizations that provide academic enrichment opportunities to students in out-of-school hours.
In recent years, the grant funding has been available for a poader range of recipients, including schools that have extended the school day or year, though the focus on serving low-income students has remained constant.
The 21st Learning Center grants are typically not sufficient enough to cover all the costs programs incur, though, so many programs blend funding from public and private streams to stay afloat and match grants they receive. These sources can include school district funds, state funding, or community donations, to name a few.
A number of other federal funding streams, such as Title I dollars and the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) funding help support after-school as well, as do competitive/discretionary grant programs, such as Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative, which includes after-school programs as an allowable use of money. Additionally, some districts have used the federal funding for Supplementary Education Services under No Child Left Behind to support after-school programs. However, those tutoring services have been curtailed in most of the more than 30 states which have received ESEA waivers.
States also help finance out-of-school programs, with each state setting its own procedures and parameters for delegating funding to after-school programs and holding them accountable to delivering quality services. California, for example, has administered the After School Education and Safety Program (ASES) since 2002, which provides $550 million each year to support after-school and enrichment programming in the state.
On the private sector side, funders such as the Wallace Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, have helped support after-school programs in a variety of ways.
The Wallace Foundation, for example, has funded the establishment of locally-supported systems for after-school programs in cities throughout the country. New York City and Providence, R.I., are two such examples of systems where the local school district, the city government, and community organizations work in tandem to provide a well-oiled system for delivering after-school programming to students in their communities.
The Mott Foundation, based in Flint, Mich., supports the state networks for after-school, in addition to funding other initiatives in the out-of-school space. These networks help coordinate after-school programming throughout their respective states, such as financing, delivery, and evaluation of services, while providing professional development opportunities for after-school staff. Only six states do not have such a network, the foundation reports.
And the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation has funded research of and innovative learning opportunities in the out-of-school space, focused on digital and 21st century learning.
Community-based sites, like YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs also often house after-school programs and receive funds through a variety of means.
Similar to the funding landscape, while after-school programs can bear many similarities, the programming offered at after-school sites differs from one program to the next.
In recent years, as schools have been forced to cut their programs and offerings—such as arts, music, and physical education—from the school day, after-school programs have been pushed to make up for these losses and provide more enhanced curricula than ever before.
Most after-school programs offer a blend of components, such as homework assistance, hands-on enrichment like arts, and opportunities for exercise and play. They often target low-income students — though that is not always the case.
In addition, a number of districts are also using the time to enhance school-day learning by providing opportunities to reinforce academic skills, such as through science experiments or by teaching supplementary skills that can prove useful in school, such as digital learning. Enriching experiences like field trips to museums or cultural sites or classes taught by guest speakers further these opportunities.
With all the learning taking place in after-school programs, there has also been a push for a means to give students credit or acknowledgment of skills and experiences students are gaining in out-of-school hours.
Digital Badges–or virtual records of skills and achievements or a sort of digital Girl Scout or Boy Scout patch– are one such example. In some after-school programs today, students are receiving these badges, bringing them back to their schools for acknowledgement, or even, in some cases, including them in their applications for college.
These opportunities for accreditation are especially useful for older students, who tend not to be the traditional target for after-school programs, but still need engaging learning opportunities and support/mentoring in their hours away from school.
The Nellie Mae Education Foundation, for example, is working on several initiatives that scale up the traditional notion of an after-school program for high school-age students, helping support and facilitate new hands-on, deeper learning opportunities through local out-of-school programming in collaboration with New England school districts.
Yet, even with the push for students to gain specific skills in after-school programs or offered unique opportunities, others in the out-of-school space believe these hours should be less structured. Some feel ample time should be provided for students to freely experiment and discover on their own or among peers, fostering the types of social-emotional learning opportunities that are often absent from the school day.
According to after-school stakeholders, the way to improve out-of-school programs is more about the staffing than the curricula offered.
Typically, after-school staff tend to be younger and work part time; some may have second jobs or attend school at the same time. For many programs, the ideal after-school staffer can identify and relate to the children enrolled in the program, helping to support and foster skills and experiences the children may not access during school. This can mean hiring staff who come from the neighborhoods the children themselves inhabit or have faced similar challenges when they were young.
There is growing pressure for after-school programs to improve the quality and quantity of the services. As a result, there is an increased focus on how to recruit, hire, and retain high-quality staff, and to provide the professional development necessary to keep the program in good standing.
In some cases, this has driven programs to seek out staff that is more similar to classroom teachers in terms of credentials, or have more education and/or experience working with youth so they can provide better academic support or teach students new skills. In other communities, like Palm Beach, Fla., staff can obtain credentials or certificates through local higher education institutions that teach or further develop skills believed necessary for working with youth in out-of-school programs.
Other programs have made use of community resources for professional development, such the conferences held by state after-school networks or trainings provided by local cultural institutions. Given the costs, many are now also turning to an array of digital resources online, supported through national associations like the Afterschool Alliance or National AfterSchool Association, among others, that provide ideas for lessons and activities, manuals on necessary core competencies for staff, and recommendations for how to evaluate staff to ensure program quality is maintained.
These issues surrounding professional development and certification of after-school staff bring up other key areas for debate within the field. Among them: “What outcomes are these programs aiming to achieve for youth?” and “Should these programs look more like the school day or remain distinct?”
Those questions are further hashed out in the evaluation space, as there is no standard evaluation criteria after-school programs adhere to universally.
After-school programs receiving 21st Century Learning Center funding must be regularly evaluated, for example, but there is flexibility in choice of method. States dictate their own criteria, and some districts also have individual or specific practices in place.
These measures are continuing to broaden, however.
There seems to be a growing consensus among after-school advocates about what constitutes high-quality academic enrichment and what types of components should be included in a program. However, how best to measure whether or not a program, the staff, and students themselves have been successful is challenging —especially when there can be disagreement about the goals of after-school programs.
Additionally, research has found that these programs can yield many positive outcomes, including improved academic performance, reduction in misbehavior, and better engagement/motivation in school. Still, what specifically makes one more program more successful than the next is up for debate. The impact of these programs also tends to be more potent if students attend for consecutive years, but ensuring this occurs is nearly impossible.
More and more after-school programs today are looking for cost-effective ways to self-evaluate using digital and other scalable resources as their guide. But to successfully use these methods, programs must be proactive about measuring impact and making changes to improve results.
Coupling tight resources with high demand/student need, self-evaluation and self-improvement efforts can be a secondary concern for after-school programs, especially when a consensus about ideal outcomes and ways to measure them is still undetermined.