Making After-School Count

This could be a historic moment for after-school programming.

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This could be a historic moment for after-school programming.

It was 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and instead of watching TV or just hanging out, about two dozen students in a Central Falls, R.I., middle school were deep in thought at a long table in their school lunchroom, playing chess in pairs or against their teacher. "Great move!" the teacher told one youngster. "I think you're ready to play Jamell next." He rarely told students what moves to make, but encouraged the strategic problem-solving that chess requires. Noticing a game that had just ended, the teacher gathered others around the chessboard to discuss the losing move that contributed to the outcome. He asked the group to think of a move that would be better—turning a child's loss into a lesson for everyone.

As the head of a research team that has studied the benefits and challenges of school-based after-school programs launched five years ago by the Wallace- Reader's Digest Funds, I often think back on the intensity of those Rhode Island youths' concentration, the team spirit they were discovering, and their affection and respect for a helping and caring adult. Chess may not be "academic" in the strict sense. But we now have gathered plenty of evidence of the benefits that a wide variety of high-quality after-school programs, like this one, almost certainly have in school, and in life. They help young adults resist negative temptations and develop character, social skills, perseverance, and problem-solving skills that are as valuable, in their way, as help with homework.

After-school programs in fact are catching on. Communities across the country are realizing that how children spend their time after school can make all the difference in determining whether they become capable students today and productive, responsible citizens tomorrow. This year, the federal government is providing nearly $1 billion to states earmarked for after-school programs through the 21st Century Community Learning Center program.

Tutoring and homework help certainly have their place in such after-school programming, if served up competently. But school officials and state and federal policymakers also need to know that nonacademic activities such as chess or theater can also support school achievement and promote positive attitudes in kids who often don't succeed in the typical school context.

In "Multiple Choices After School," our recently published study of a 60-program initiative, my colleagues and I at Public/Private Ventures and Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. found strong evidence that, particularly in low-income communities, high-quality after-school programs are an effective, affordable way to keep children safe and out of trouble, improve family relationships, and improve students' attitudes and behaviors in school. Specifically:

  • Eighty percent to 90 percent of parents surveyed in a range of these programs believed that their children acquired new skills and became more confident learners.
  • Eighty-five percent of parents surveyed said that as a result of these programs, their children enjoyed school more and improved their attendance.
  • Seventy percent of children said they learned that hard work pays off.
  • Students participating in after-school programs were also less likely to start drinking, and were more likely to handle their anger in socially appropriate ways.
  • Eighty percent to 90 percent of parents in the programs we studied said they were less worried about their children's safety after school, 45 percent said it helped them get better jobs or do better at their jobs, and three-quarters said the program helped their children get along better with family members.

Along with the benefits, we also learned alot about what works in after-school programs, and what they cost.

The best programs we saw offered a range of interesting, engaging activities—not just homework help and tutoring—and were based on the children's current interests, such as sports or cooking. These programs pull low-achieving students in the door with the enticement of learning in a fun way, and get them to stay for a rich mix of academic and nonacademic learning that they would likely avoid if the enticements weren't part of the package.

Having a high-quality staff is a key—perhaps the key—to success. We found that activities of all types—academic, enrichment, community service, or sports—provided children with valuable learning opportunities, as long as staff members created a supportive yet challenging environment. Good staff actively motivated students, pushed them to achieve beyond the students' initial expectations, encouraged them to persevere, and praised their accomplishments, as the Rhode Island teacher did with his young chess players.

The unprecedented level of state and federal funding for these programs relfects the growing national acceptance that what happens after school is vitally important.

Average costs in the programs we examined ranged from $8 to $36 per child, per day, when all activities were in session. Not including the cost of the school space, the programs we studied cost on average $150,000 per school year, serving approximately 63 students a day, five days a week. This translates to $15 per day, per child. Nine dollars of that was funded out of donations and cash grants, while $6 represented in-kind contributions from partner organizations, such as snacks from the school or a "free" dance teacher from a local studio. We found that cost depended as much on program choices and opportunities as on the number of children served. For example, a decision to have more staff members available to interact with young people increases the cost of salaries, but may make mentoring more likely to occur. Understaffing a program, on the other hand, usually meant that tasks such as quality control and supervision went undone and staff members quickly burned out. Other "expenses" that added to the total cost of the after-school program were welcomed as opportunities. After-school programs that form strong partnerships were often the recipients of in-kind contributions, such as the time spent by a local government grant-writer

This could be a historic moment for after-school programming. The unprecedented level of state and federal funding for these programs reflects the growing national acceptance that what happens out of school is vitally important to setting the stage for success in school, and in later life. But it's also important to heed the growing evidence from the field about what makes for a high-quality program. Otherwise, millions of children could just be warehoused in inadequate programs. Good programs need a range of challenging and engaging activities delivered by dedicated and trained staff members. Given the increasing challenges to children's lives and the more complex sets of skills and abilities that are required for success in the 21st century, after-school programs are an effective, affordable way to invest in our nation's children.

Jean Baldwin Grossman is the senior vice president of Public/Private Ventures, a nonprofit social-policy think tank in Philadelphia. She is also a faculty member of Princeton University, in Princeton, N.J.

Vol. 22, Issue 8, Page 31

Published in Print: October 23, 2002, as Making After-School Count
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