After-School Push Poses Complex Challenge
California’s experience shows hurdles states may confront when moving to implement popular, ambitious programs.
While nearly 2,000 new after-school programs are operating throughout California as a result of new funding approved by voters five years ago, school districts face significant challenges in finding enough qualified personnel to meet the demand and coming up with enough money to fulfill a requirement that they match state funding.
“The whole country is really watching what’s happening here, because we have made such a big investment,” said Jennifer Peck, the executive director of the Bay Area Partnership for Children and Youth, an Oakland-based nonprofit organization that supports after-school programs in low-income communities.
One hurdle confronting California cities and school districts is hiring hundreds of new employees for part-time positions that don’t pay very well.
And while the ballot measure passed in 2002 calls for after-school staff members to have the same qualifications as instructional aides who would work in classrooms during school hours, many district officials interpret that to mean that the aides need to meet the requirements for paraprofessionals under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That strict interpretation, said Ms. Peck, “tightens the pool of who can be hired.”
She added that the credentials required for “highly qualified paraprofessionals” under NCLB, which include earning an associate’s degree, taking at least two years of college courses, or passing a test, might not be necessary for community members and others who are otherwise appropriate for teaching in after-school programs.
Because of the confusion, Ms. Peck’s group and others have asked the legislature to clarify the law.
‘A Safe Environment’
Passage of Proposition 49, setting up the after-school effort , was one of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first political victories. He campaigned for the initiative—which increased funding for an existing after-school program—before running for governor.
And since being in office, he has stood firmon implementing the new After-School Education and Safety Program Act, which called for up to $550 million a year in grant funds for after-school programs statewide. They had been receiving about $120 million annually before Proposition 49.
Funding from California’s after-school initiative has let long-running programs such as LA’s Best expand the number of schools they serve with a variety of academic and enrichment activities.
The law targets elementary and middle schools in which at least half the students qualify for subsidized meals.
But two years ago, the nonpartisan legislative analyst’s office recommended that state lawmakers consider repealing the law, saying that funding the new program would give the legislature less wiggle room in the budget.
The governor strongly opposed such a move and made sure the money was a highlight of his budget proposal in fiscal 2007.
“Every elementary and middle school can have a program so that working parents will know that their children will be in a safe environment—getting help with their homework, doing arts and physical activities,” he said during his 2006 State of the State address. “This will be good for both the children and the parents.”
The new funding under Proposition 49 has more than tripled what the state previously was spending on after-school programs. That has, for example, enabled LA’s Best, a long-running after-school program serving the 708,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, to move into 32 additional schools, bringing the total number served to 180 elementary schools.
“Because we’re going into new schools, that is huge,” said Catherine Stringer, a spokeswoman for LA’s Best. “We’re talking about communities that desperately need the program.”
Now that money from the state’s general fund is being used for elementary and middle schools, much of the federal money the state was receiving from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program—more than $130 million in fiscal 2007—has shifted to the high school level.
Focusing on Outcomes
While the after-school agenda is moving ahead in some other parts of the country—Boston and Chicago have made some efforts, for example—Georgia Hall, a research scientist at the Wellesley, Mass.-based National Institute on Out-of-School Time, said California is leading the way.
“I don’t think anything compares” with Proposition 49, she said. But she added that providers implementing the programs should pay close attention to what happens during those after-school hours. “We can’t just start opening up more and more programs without being conscious of quality,” she said.
Determining the appropriate outcomes for after-school programs was a topic California lawmakers tackled last year.
All Proposition 49 programs will be responsible for working toward improving school attendance as well as students’ attendance in their after-school programs. They will also choose a third outcome—something that best fits what the program is hoping to accomplish, such as skill development, improvements in behavior, or homework completion.
“It’s more balanced,” Ms. Peck said, comparing the current list of goals with previous plans to monitor only achievement gains.
Factors to Weigh
While after-school programs are sometimes judged by whether students make academic progress during the regular school day, many experts say social-emotional development and improvements in behavior also should be factors in deciding whether an after-school program is effective.
“After-school programs differ from schools in significant ways, and as such, face limitations in providing focused, direct assistance to students in the areas that are assessed with standardized tests,” Sam Piha, now a consultant, wrote in a 2006 paper for the California Committee on After-School Accountability . “After-school programs are not funded at the level of schools, are not staffed by credentialed teachers, and do not offer hourly wages and benefits paid to school personnel. Instead, they rely on part-time workers and volunteers, many without advanced degrees or credentials.”
The issue of reasonable expectations for after-school programs was highlighted four years ago when Princeton, N.J.-based Mathematica Policy Research released a report concluding that the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program had led to few positive effects on student achievement and did not improve students’ behavior or feelings of safety. ("After-School Report Called Into Question," May 21, 2003.)
The design of the study later was criticized by members of a technical working group, who said the results were based on such a small sample that they were not representative of the entire program.
With those discussions continuing on a national basis, Ms. Peck said that some operators in California also will have a tough time coming up with the $250 per student to match the $750 a year from the state.
“Most are struggling,” she said. “These funds go to the lowest-income neighborhoods.”
Vol. 27, Issue 1, Pages 20-21