Student Well-Being

After-School Programs Can’t Enroll as Many Students as Before Pandemic, Survey Says

By Caitlynn Peetz — March 02, 2023 6 min read
Vick Xin, 8, works on a computer animation with his mother, Liqun Tang, at a Remake Learning Days program held at South Fayette Intermediate School last May in McDonald, Pa. The program is a nonprofit after-school initiative that aims to inspire and nurture kids’ interest in science, math, arts, technology, and more, through hands-on or project-based activities.
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As districts work to catch up and reengage students after pandemic-related closures, more than half of the country’s after-school programs have waitlists of students they can’t serve, largely due to rising costs and an inability to hire enough staff, according to a new survey.

The survey of more than 7,400 centers, conducted by the Afterschool Alliance, found that while 94 percent of programs are open and operating, about a quarter can’t serve as many students as they did before the COVID-19 pandemic.

An overwhelming majority of providers—about 85 percent—are concerned about their ability to hire and retain staff; 66 percent said they are extremely concerned.

The survey results are one more data point showing why after-school programs and other academic recovery efforts aimed at extending students’ learning time—something that’s shown promise an effective strategy—have had difficulty catching on.

“I’m hoping that this report will be a wakeup call, especially to some of the school districts that still haven’t used all of their COVID recovery dollars, to think about the after-school and summer learning space,” Afterschool Alliance Executive Director Jodi Grant said. “We’ve got 25 million kids whose parents want these programs. We need to do better.”

More than half of the providers said their weekly costs per child have increased, with about 39 percent saying they have grown by 11 to 25 percent. Those could include the costs of snacks and meals, transportation, and staffing.

“The demand for our program is higher than it has been in the last eight-plus years, and the number of students enrolling with special needs are also quite high,” an unnamed after-school program provider in Massachusetts says in the survey report. “So these needs, combined with a staffing market that is lacking teachers and most of our teaching positions being only part-time, makes it really hard.”

Academic and social-emotional benefits

Problems adequately staffing and running after-school programs could have consequences for students, who are generally struggling to regain ground after school closures upended education in 2020 and 2021.

After-school programs, if designed around the students’ curriculum and classroom learning, can be linked directly to improving students’ academic performance.

Many studies, some dating back decades, have found tutoring or other school-based programs that are tied to classroom content can notably accelerate learning in core content areas, like math and reading. The impact is even greater for students who struggle most, like those in special education programs, English learners, or low-income students. Those efforts have been found to be most effective during the school day, but have shown positive results after school as well.

Aside from academic benefits, after-school programs provide opportunities for children to explore their interests in a more casual environment, which can raise their self-esteem and boost engagement with their coursework, Grant said.

“School can’t do it all, and school is so focused on academics and grades, but kids do something much more holistic, where they’re discovering who they are and what their passions are,” Grant said. “They need space where they can get out of their comfort zone and try things they might be intimidated to try if they knew they were getting graded on it.”

The Afterschool Alliance survey’s findings dovetail with those of separate research about district efforts to implement strategies like tutoring and extended school days or years, and offer some insight into why the efforts aren’t gaining traction, despite evidence that they work.

In a working paper published in January, researchers at the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research found district leaders struggled to implement academic recovery programs at the intended scale and intensity because they had difficulties keeping students engaged, finding sufficient staff, scheduling, and getting buy-in from parents and community groups.

Of the districts included in the report, tutoring programs intended to serve 22 to 35 percent of students in targeted schools and grades. However, the programs reached only 20 to 30 percent of the intended students, the equivalent of 5 to 10 percent of all students.

Districts that had planned to offer between 30 and 60 hours of math tutoring per year actually provided 12 to 14 hours, the working paper says.

Potential solutions

While the struggles are concerning, Grant said there are possible solutions.

After-school programs struggling to keep pace with demand, Grant said, should focus on deploying efforts to bolster staffing, like increasing pay or offering sign-on bonuses, as well as providing more professional development and free child care for staff. About 70 percent of providers who responded to the survey said they have already increased employees’ pay; only 19 percent said they have take no steps to attract or retain staff, compared with 29 percent a year ago.

After-school programs with access to federal COVID relief funds were most likely to report having taken steps to address staffing problems.

It’s important that districts consider using some of their COVID-19 relief funds to establish after-school programs before those funds expire next year, Grant said. Then, districts can point to their success when advocating for future funding from local and state policymakers.

“I think if school districts are smart, this is a huge opportunity to bring in resources in the community to support your kids in a way that you’re building an infrastructure that can be leveraged in the future,” Grant said.

Because additional learning time has shown some promise for students’ academic progress and social-emotional well-being, many after-school programs are shifting their focus more toward academics, rather than recreation and fun, which can be stressful for staff, who are often part-time workers or college students, the report says.

“We understand the need, however, expectations for my staff are significantly higher and can lead to burnout,” an after-school provider in Texas says in the report. “My staff members are part-time staff and full-time college students. Adding the additional stress and pressure to resemble teachers in the after-school programs is asking a lot from them.”

Some programs struggle to get students to enroll

About a quarter of providers that said they were operating at lower capacity than they were pre-pandemic said it was because there weren’t as many students enrolled.

Some after-school providers attributed that, at least in part, to more parents working from home and being able to watch their children themselves, rather than rely on school-based programs.

Sometimes, parents simply might not know that after-school programs are an option, so clearly communicating what opportunities are available for children and how they are intended to benefit them, either academically or socially, can yield more buy-in.

Then, parents are more likely to enroll their children because “they want them to have those experiences,” Grant said.

“When you think back to when you were in school, when did the sparks go off? Where did you learn about the things that led to your career?” Grant said. “I think for most people, they’re going to look to the enrichment as much as they are to their school day. That’s really important, both for the student and, ultimately, the community they’re part of.”

Coverage of afterschool learning opportunities is supported in part by a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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