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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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