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In Devising After-School Programs, Commitment Is Key

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Samantha Sadd couldn't be happier that after-school activities have become a rallying cry among politicians. The former VISTA volunteer runs a highly regarded tutoring program here out of a trailer on a $50,000 annual budget.

"They should look at programs like ours that have done a lot with a little," Ms. Sadd said, "and see what they could do with more."

Her hopes may be fulfilled before long, as federal, state, and city agencies across the country prepare to spend millions of dollars proposed or approved in recent months as the political popularity of after-school activities has soared.

President Clinton wants to spend $1 billion over the next five years, while some Democratic lawmakers are pushing for a commitment five times that size. In Georgia, state lawmakers passed a budget last month that includes $10 million for after-school reading programs.

In Philadelphia, Superintendent David W. Hornbeck is doling out $5,000 grants to 34 schools and community groups. And the Los Angeles district is negotiating roughly $10 million in tutoring contracts with five companies, including Kaplan Education Centers Inc. and Sylvan Learning Systems Inc.

Enriching after-school time appeals to both liberals and conservatives as a strategy that combines the goals of raising achievement and reducing juvenile crime in the afternoons. What's more, the nationwide movement toward higher academic standards and rigorous testing means that some students need extra help to measure up.

But whether after-school programs accomplish these ambitious goals or serve merely as babysitters, researchers say, depends on the quality of the activities, the commitment of the adults involved in them, and a host other factors.

"We're not looking for board games and television," said Adriana Kanter, a U.S. Department of Education deputy director for planning and evaluation. "We're looking for enriching experiences."

Boston is one of three cities that has received a total of $1.2 million for after-school programs from the Dewitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund over the past three years. The city expects to reap additional money from both its Democratic mayor and the state's acting Republican governor.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino is launching an initiative called "2 to 6" to help cover the costs of keeping schools in the 66,000-student system open in the late afternoon. And Gov. Paul Cellucci has proposed spending $8 million next year in 15 high-crime areas.

Visits to three after-school programs held up as models in this city offer insights for public officials nationwide who are planning to increase spending on children's activities outside the classroom.

Focus on Projects

Thomas Totten, a ruddy-faced 7th grader at Woodrow Wilson Middle School, is wearing a navy blue, double-breasted suit because he's got a meeting with a "client."

He is one of about 180 students involved in Citizen Schools, a nonprofit organization that allows children ages 9 to 14 to take after-school classes with a variety of volunteer professionals, from journalists to venture capitalists. The 3-year-old program, which enrolls "apprentices" from seven different schools, tends to focus on projects, such as drawing up a marketing plan for a flower shop, building an electric car, or painting a playground mural.

Thomas is taking a class with a business consultant who's helping a local health-care center open a coffee shop. "I've learned to shake hands and look people in the eye," he said.

John Werner, whose tweed jacket, scuffed shoes, and mussed hair evoke the image of an absent-minded professor, is the program's marketing director. The 27-year-old former special education teacher is so zealous about the program that he interrupts an interview in a doughnut shop to try to recruit two girls waiting at the counter.

"I'm part of a movement to help kids be successful," he said.

Citizen Schools includes two components that researchers say are crucial to good after-school programs: an internal-review process and caring adults. The volunteer professionals fill out evaluations of every class session. And Mr. Werner said he and the seven other staff members call the students at home at least once a week to check on their progress.

"My mom says she's glad I'm not wasting my time watching cartoons," said 6th grader Crystal Morgan, who sold holiday cards at a museum through one class last year. "I've learned to have more respect for myself and for others. My math skills are better, too."

'Creative Opportunities'

Boston, like many other cities, suffers from a shortage of after-school programs and of public money to help parents afford them, said Laura Gang, an assistant director of Parents United for Child Care, a local advocacy group.

More than 13,000 children of working parents in Massachusetts are on the state's waiting list for child-care subsidies. With unemployment relatively low and the welfare rolls dropping, more and more parents are away from home during the afternoons and evenings. Schools are rarely a haven; only 25 of the Boston district's 120 schools are open after the last bell rings.

"The days when you could expect a parent to be home are gone," said Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, who wants to spend $2.5 million on after-school and summer tutoring this year. "There have to be other creative opportunities that reinforce a child's growth and development."

That call was made in an influential 1992 report by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, which said the nation's 20 million teenagers were being "left adrift." ("Carnegie Urges Youth Programs for 'Adrift' Adolescents," Dec. 16, 1992.)

Boston's after-school programs, which range from purely recreational activities to intellectual pursuits, resemble a patchwork quilt that covers only limited corners of the city. They are supported by a variety of financial sources--mostly private ones--and rely heavily on volunteers and low-paid staffs.

Ms. Sadd, for example, has only one employee at the Hawthorne Youth and Community Center, located in a trailer that looks much like a portable classroom. She recently recruited some college students to help tutor the roughly 20 children she supervises every weekday.

Knowing that transporting children from school to another place is difficult for parents, Ms. Sadd takes the initiative. She picks up students at two nearby schools and walks them to the trailer in the working-class Roxbury neighborhood.

On a rainy afternoon, the children, all elementary school students, come in quietly, hang up their coats, and take homework out of their backpacks. The best after-school programs, research shows, reinforce lessons taught in the classroom, though they need not necessarily be structured like the school day. ("Carnegie Offers Reform Strategy for Ages 3 to 10," Sept. 18, 1996.)

The makeshift, one-room schoolhouse is jammed with tables and chairs, books, games, and art supplies. Research shows that children like a variety of activities, and Ms. Sadd tries to oblige. A few weeks ago, she brought in a guest to teach African dance. "You need to give kids what they're interested in," she said.

Social Activism

A few miles away, the Bird Street Community Center has a similar philosophy, offering K-12 children activities from computer literacy to step aerobics. But in contrast to the tiny Hawthorne Center, this program is held in a vast, turn-of-the century building and enrolls up to 200. It is trying to raise $10 million for a new building that could serve twice as many students.

Some of the 20 staff members are former participants from Upham's Corner, a largely poor and minority neighborhood beset with unemployment and crime.

"Bird Street kept me off the street," 21-year-old Nuno Barros said while supervising a basketball game one recent afternoon. "I wanted to give back to my community."

Milbrey W. McLaughlin, a Stanford University professor who has studied after-school programs, says they need to be more than just fun--they should also have some educational or social value. That quality is evident in Bird Street's peer-leadership program. Six students are working on an AIDS-awareness campaign; another half-dozen are working on an anti-smoking crusade. They receive $66 for their work every two weeks.

"It gets them here," said Executive Director Mary Gunn, a former Peace Corps volunteer. "We get a lot out of them for a little bit. ... The next director of this center will be one of those kids."

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