Today, more parents than ever work outside the home, and many struggle to secure adequate after-school care for their children (U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice, 1998; U.S. Department of Education, 2000). As a result, large numbers of youngsters find themselves alone and unsupervised when the school bell rings at the end of the day (The After School Corp., 1998).
Studies have shown that the after-school hours can be dangerous ones for children. The Department of Justice reports that 29 percent of all juvenile offenses occur on school days between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and that the number of violent crimes committed doubles in the hour immediately after school is let out (U.S. Department of Justice, 1997).
After-school programs are often seen as an effective way to keep children safe and supervised. Experts also believe that the after-school hours are an opportunity to further engage students in academic, social, and physical activities. As former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley noted, "Children's minds don't close down at 3 p.m." (U.S. Department of Education, 2000). And now, neither do many schools.
In recent years, there has been an upsurge in the number of after-school options available to students. Public schools are taking a leading role in developing such programs. In 1988, just 22 percent of K-8 principals reported that their schools offered after-school programs. By 2001, two-thirds of principals reported having after-school programs in place (National Association of Elementary School Principals, 2001). At the same time, the focus of many programs has shifted from general enrichment activities (including social and physical) to more academically focused activities.
The increase in after-school options seems to be just what the public wants. In a 1999 Mott Foundation/JC Penney nationwide survey, 92 percent of voters thought "there should be some type of organized activity or place for children and teens to go after school every day," and 86 percent of voters believed that after-school programs were a "necessity." Principals of public schools that offer after-school programs also value their after-school options for students. More than 75 percent of principals think that it is "extremely important" for schools to maintain their extended-day programs (National Association of Elementary School Principals, 2001).
The federal government has gotten into the business of supporting after-school programs, especially in low-income communities. Funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, an after-school program established by the Clinton administration, has increased dramatically over the years, from $40 million in fiscal year 1998 to $1 billion in fiscal 2002. The grant program now supports after-school programs in about 7,500 rural and inner-city public schools in more than 1,400 communities (U.S. Department of Education, 2003). A large chunk of such funding also goes to support “community schools” or schools that operate before and after the academic day and host a variety of activities for their towns and neighborhoods.
All of this attention and money devoted to after-school programs has many experts asking the question: Do after-school programs benefit children and have a positive impact on student achievement?
Several studies have found that after-school programs do have positive effects on children's academic performance as well as on other factors. The U.S. Department of Education conducted a study on after-school programs across the country in 1998 and found student-achievement gains in school districts in New York, Illinois, New Hampshire, Louisiana, California, Texas, and Tennessee that had initiated after-school programs (Brickman , 1996; Chicago Public Schools, 1998; Gregory, 1996; Louisiana Department of Education, 1996; Brooks and Mojica, 1995; McLennan Youth Collaboration Inc., 1997; Ross, et al., 1996). Cities in Texas, New York, and Maryland also reported substantial decreases in juvenile crime after the inception of various after-school programs (McLennan Youth Collaboration Inc., 1997; Schinke, et al., 1992; Baltimore Police Department, 1998).
For example, after opening an after-school program in a high-crime area, the Baltimore Police Department saw a 44 percent drop in children's risk of becoming victims of crime (1998). Also, an analysis of the L.A. BEST after-school program by the University of Wisconsin revealed that cases of school vandalism declined 40 percent to 60 percent upon the implementation of the program (Los Angeles Unified School District, 1997). A 1998 government study also reported that students in after-school programs generally handled conflicts better, were more cooperative with adults and with peers, and had better social skills (U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice).
Despite these positive findings, recent research conducted on the effects of after-school programs has returned less-than-rosy results. A federally commissioned evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program released in February 2003 found that test scores of federal program participants were no better than those of students not involved in the programs. Also, by some standards, student behavior appeared to worsen among program participants.
Critics of the report argue that a one-year review does not provide sufficient time to evaluate such an extensive program. They point to a recent study released by the Coalition for Community Schools (2003) that contradicts some of the findings from the federal government’s assessment of the 21st Century program. The study pulls together evaluations of 20 community-school initiatives and reports improvement in student academic achievement in a large majority of them.
But the federally-commissioned evaluation has already influenced the Bush administration's views on after-school programming. President Bush has proposed a $400 million budget cut for the program for fiscal 2004 (U.S. Department of Education, 2003).