Research: After the Bell Rings

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Education stakeholders are turning a hopeful gaze to after-school programs as potentially potent weapons against a host of persistent problems.

Amber Long was sick of going home every afternoon and watching television. So when her middle school launched an innovative after-school program, she hung around after the dismissal bell. She figured she had nothing to lose.

The teachers at Stuart-Hobson Middle School in the District of Columbia will tell you: As a 6th grader, Amber was a "diamond in the rough," expert at concealing her many facets beneath a bored, cynical air. All that was visible was the tough basketball player who couldn't rank school low enough on her list of priorities. Then a friend let it slip to the school's music teacher: Amber could sing. Really sing.

Amber Long, an 8th grader at Stuart-Hobson Middle School in the District of Columbia, credits the after-school program there with changing her attitudes about school.

Friends and teachers in the music-and-theater portion of the after-school program finally wore down Amber's resistance, and one day she let out a little gospel. Eyebrows went up, and jaws dropped. The more smiles spread round the room, the louder Amber sang. Now, as an 8th grader, she's taking lead roles in the stage numbers. The reading and math tutoring she receives in the program have helped her improve her grades. For the first time, Amber feels optimistic about her future.

"When they saw I could sing, everyone looked at me differently," says the soft-spoken 13-year-old. "They were amazed. And it made me start believing in myself more." That newfound confidence, she adds, has changed her life. "The after-school program gave me something I never thought I had: the momentum to go higher."

Amber's story is precisely the sort that lawmakers in the U.S. Capitol, whose dome is visible from Amber's school, hope will be replicated thousands of times over as government and private funding for out-of-school child-care programs soars in an attempt to keep up with the demand.

Increasingly, education stakeholders of all stripes are turning a hopeful gaze to such programs as potentially potent weapons against a host of persistent problems ranging from juvenile crime to lagging test scores. At the same time, pressure is building to demonstrate that the programs are worthy financial and social investments. That, many experts say, has created a demand for solid research on which programs bring the best results.

"Your tax dollars are paying for this program, and our client is Congress, and Congress wants to know if our program works," says Adriana A. de Kanter, who oversees after-school issues for U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. "Mayors and superintendents want to know if programs work."

After-School Programs:
What Works

Here are some things that researchers say effective after-school programs should do:
  • Offer a wide variety of activities.
  • Tailor their offerings to the age and needs of the children they serve.
  • Use a fun, hands-on approach to learning.
  • Offer activities that expand and enrich—but do not duplicate—the school day's curriculum.
  • Feature a close, caring, and consistent relationship between the children and the caregivers.
  • Offer sufficient compensation and training to attract and retain high-quality staff members.

Yet research in the area is only just beginning.

Already, scattered studies suggest that good programs can indeed benefit children in many ways, and researchers are identifying elements of what makes a "good" program.

But even the authors of such optimistic studies caution against turning to after-school programs to ease deeply rooted societal problems, especially when there is still so far to go between conceptualizing high-quality programs and creating them.

"We need to have tempered expectations," says Deborah Lowe Vandell, a University of Wisconsin-Madison education professor whose research is considered among the most authoritative on after-school care. "These programs are not going to be a panacea for all society's ills."

Others suggest that identifying and measuring such intangible benefits as Amber Long's sense of confidence or students' overall attitudes toward school is a difficult and possibly misguided task for researchers.

More at Stake

No definitive figures exist on how much money is being spent on after-school care, since the bulk of it is financed privately by parents. Even federal funding, which represents a small chunk of the total, is hard to quantify, since it is splintered among various agencies. Indicators of the rise in federal funding, however, can be seen in a couple of its key programs.

The Department of Education's 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which grants money to start school-based programs in partnership with community agencies, began in the 1997 fiscal year with a $1 million appropriation and entered fiscal 2000 with $450 million. Funding for the child-care component of the Child-Care and Development Block Grant program, which is administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, is at an all-time high, funneling more than $1 billion annually to set up programs and help parents subsidize the cost.

Many researchers say after-school programs, like the one at Stuart-Hobson Middle School, should combine a mix of different activities designed for specific age groups.

States are also devoting bigger chunks of their budgets to the cause. Twenty-six of 43 states that responded to a 1999 survey by the National Governors' Association reported plans to increase funding for after-school programs: Delaware is earmarking $10 million in 1999-2000. Kentucky plans to set aside $37 million. New York increased funding for after-school programs from $500,000 to $10 million.

Private foundations are opening their coffers as well. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, long a leader in the field, has pledged $83 million over six years to the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. Philanthropist George Soros' Open Society Institute has promised up to $25 million a year for five years to support a new venture that is designing innovative after-school programs in New York City. The Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds has pledged more than $16 million to the design of such programs in low-income communities around the country over the next three to five years.

The money is flowing in response to a need that is still far from satisfied. With three-quarters of the mothers of the nation's 54 million schoolchildren in the workforce, and the impact of the 1996 overhaul of the welfare system likely to increase those ranks, there is widespread agreement that schools and communities must pitch in to help.

And the need is often greatest—and the money most lacking—in urban neighborhoods like the one that Stuart-Hobson Middle School serves.

The General Accounting Office projects that the need for care could exceed availability by as much as 4-to-1 in some cities by 2002.

As millions of children pour into newly designed programs, it becomes even more critical to ensure high quality. But how much is really known about what makes for good after-school programming? The choices made now, some experts say, could have long-lasting effects.

The need is often greatest--and the money most lacking--in urban neighborhoods.

"How are we choosing what to put in place, and how are we evaluating it?" asks Mary Larner, a policy analyst with the David and Lucile Packard Foundation's Center for the Future of Children. "These things are going to shape what we say five years from now, when we ask: Did we succeed or was it a bust? If it was a bust, the groundswell of support goes away."

Historically, Vandell of the University of Wisconsin says, most research dollars have been devoted to studying what makes high-quality programs for toddlers and preschoolers. Only recently have similar inquiries begun into care for school-age children. But from that new arena of study, some agreement is emerging.

Early Findings

Studies have found that good programs can raise math and reading performance, improve attendance, decrease students' involvement in crime, and reduce dropout rates. Other research has linked such programs to improved behavior at school, increased interest in learning, better social skills, and higher aspirations for the future.

In light of those findings, educators and care providers consider it a given that children can realize enormous benefits from after-school programs. Conversation in the field has now turned to the critical challenge: how to create programs that yield those benefits.

Dancing is one of the many musical offerings in the after-school program at Stuart-Hobson, which also includes foreign-language offerings and cheerleading.

Researchers suggest that programs should be tailored to both the age group and the community they serve. The best programs for school-age children, they say, are those in which many choices are offered, from academic to recreation, cultural, and community activities.

As children head toward middle school, they need strong extracurricular offerings: the kinds of activities they would likely choose for themselves, such as soccer, band, or yearbook. High school students benefit in particular from programs with strong mentoring, community-service, and college- and work-preparation elements.

But programs, regardless of what age group they serve, can help students the most when they take a fun, hands-on approach to learning, researchers say. It's fine to offer math and reading tutoring, they say, but after-school programs should seize upon their unique opportunity to expand and enrich—rather than duplicate—the learning of the school day.

Some experts cite the program at Stuart-Hobson Middle School as a model of many of the best practices in good after-school care. Running two years on funds from the Temporary Aid to Needy Families provision of the 1996 welfare law, the program serves the neighborhood's population of mixed racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Amber Long and her peers receive tutoring in basic skills, but they also can join a wide range of activities: from Spanish instruction, to cheerleading and basketball, to art, drama, and musical theater.

In a computer lab, they can play word games to strengthen their phonics or enhance their geometry lessons by designing virtual realities.

Students also perform community service, such as cleaning up the school hallways, working in soup kitchens, and visiting senior citizens' homes. Subjects from their school day are expanded upon here.

For instance, the 8th grade's social studies unit on the Harlem Renaissance evolved at 3:30 p.m. into swing-dancing lessons with light historical narration about Duke Ellington from the piano player, a musician from the community. Those musical numbers morphed into a production whose sets were created by the after-school art students. The whole project became an enterprise in community service when the students performed it at a conference on black youth leadership.

The integration of so many worthy endeavors into one program is one of the keys to good practice, researchers say.

"The balanced approach to an after-school program is something [researchers] are in agreement about," said Michelle Seligson, the founder of the National Institute on Out-Of-School Time, based at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. "After-school programs need to be environments for the expression of more than just academic skills."

A Key Ingredient

Another element of good practice can be seen in the choice of activities available, manyof which are linked to the school day's curriculum. Yet another is shown by community involvement in the program; the volunteer pianist, for example, or the employees of Black Entertainment Television who are helping students design a magazine.

Still another is in compensation: Its teachers—the same ones who teach the regular day classes—earn $30 an hour, more than quadruple the average for such programs.

And yet none of what happens at Stuart-Hobson could succeed without an element that is emerging as the very heart of good after-school care: a close, caring relationship between the provider and the children.

If programs are well-designed, children can be enriched and society's larger goals served.

More than 20 years of studying out-of-school programs convinced Seligson that this bond is the most crucial factor in good programs. She is focusing on helping teachers and caregivers build strong relationships with the children they serve.

"That idea has theoretically informed care-giving environments, but in practice it's not as easy to accomplish," says Seligson. "Research is showing that, regardless of the type of program, those programs that have been successful in helping children achieve certain outcomes are the programs where the adults' interaction with the children is very consistent and close."

Building close and consistent relationships when so many programs are plagued by high turnover is a daunting problem, however. And some researchers worry that the boom in after-school care is giving an increasingly important role in children's lives to staff members who too often are underpaid and undertrained.

It is widely agreed that without improved compensation—it averages $7 an hour for front-line workers and not much more for program directors—and upgrades in training, there is little chance of securing and retaining well-qualified staff members in after-school programs. Rarely, if ever, do states require significant training to work in such programs.

State regulations, which govern after-school programs, have focused on health and safety issues rather than on ensuring the quality of staffing or programming, says Linda Sisson, the executive director of the National School Age Care Alliance, or NSACA, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Boston.

To fill that need, the organization teamed up with Wellesley's National Institute on Out-of-School Time to develop a framework of standards for after-school programs that covers everything from program design to teacher training. Programs that conform to those standards may apply for NSACA accreditation.

In the two years since the standards were issued, 750 programs have been working toward accreditation, Sisson says. The National Association of Elementary School Principals has revised and updated its own standards for after-school care, driven in part by NSACA's goals.

Accreditation and higher standards are a strong step toward improving the quality of after-school care, Sisson says, but real change won't happen until the field itself is better respected as a career choice. The persistent image of after-school-care providers as babysitters has fueled the problems of low pay and little training.

"People haven't caught up to the times," Sisson says. "They don't quite recognize how much time children are spending in care, and how important that time is."

Too Much Pressure for Results?

Some in the research and child-care fields share a growing sense of alarm at what they see as skewed priorities behind the drive to expand after-school programs.Robert Halpern, a leading researcher on after-school care, worries that in the push to use such programs to ease societal ills such as juvenile crime and to document successes, the bottom line—what is good for children—will be overlooked.

Halpern believes energy should focus less on measuring outcomes and more on making sure that programs give children opportunities to explore and expand, as well as a chance to "dawdle and daydream." Programs that drive too hard to accomplish more concrete goals, he says, could deprive youngsters of "the chance to be a kid."

"There needs to be debate about this time in kids' lives and what we want it to be like," says Halpern, a professor at the Erickson Institute for Graduate Study in Child Development in Chicago. "After-school programs should be kids' time and should not be used for some adult set of purposes. These other purposes that we are laying on after-school programs are for the most part inappropriate."

But many of those playing leading roles in the drive to create more after-school opportunities believe that all agendas can be satisfied: If programs are well-designed, children can be enriched and society's larger goals served.

Studying the outcomes of those programs is the only way to build a base of knowledge on which to design more programs of high quality, says de Kanter of the Education Department. "I believe in an agenda where we just let kids be kids, too," she says. "But if we put taxpayer money into it, we have an obligation to let them know if it's working. Evaluation is how you do that."

The Research section is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

Vol. 19, Issue 21, Pages 34-36

Published in Print: February 2, 2000, as Research: After the Bell Rings
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