While political discussion about after-school programs often focuses on how they can improve students’ academic performance, that goal is not the highest priority for most parents choosing such programs, a survey has found.
The report, released Nov. 16 by the New York City-based Public Agenda research group, found that low-income parents and those who are members of racial and ethnic minorities are more interested in an academic focus than are wealthier and white parents. They also are less content with their children’s after-school options.
Keeping children productively occupied during the summer emerged as a more vexing concern for parents than doing so after the school-closing bell rings. Nearly six in 10 parents said summer is the toughest time to make sure children have things to do. Only 14 percent picked after-school time as the most challenging.
Ruth A. Wooden, the president of Public Agenda, said she hopes the findings inform the field as policymakers decide what types of programs to support.
“Sometimes we forget that these are voluntary programs, and that parents and kids are the consumers, so these programs have to draw them in,” Ms. Wooden said. “Rarely do their voices get heard in the discussion.”
Two studies of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, a federally financed group of after-school programs in about 7,000 schools nationwide, found little evidence that they benefit children academically. Those findings, in turn, sparked debate about the initiative’s funding level. (“Study Rekindles Debate on Value of After-School Programs,” Oct. 13, 2004.)
Ms. Wooden theorized that many programs can’t show demonstrable results because they are not designed to snag young people’s interests, so participation and benefits lag. The survey could offer valuable feedback in shaping programs that both engage adolescents and meet the needs of parents, particularly in low-income communities where discontent is highest, she said.
Of the 1,003 parents interviewed for the survey by telephone in June, only 15 percent said that academic improvement was the best reason, other than safety, for children to be involved in organized activities and programs after school.
The largest portion of parents cited developing interests and hobbies as the best reason, followed by keeping children busy and having fun.
When asked what sort of program would be the best match for their own children, 37 percent said one that focused on academic preparation and skills. Thirty-two percent cited athletics, and 29 percent chose the arts. More than half the parents agreed that “kids get more than enough academics during the school day,” so after-school programs should focus on capturing other interests.
Judy Samelson, the executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, a Washington advocacy group, said the findings show that the policymaking world’s emphasis on an academic focus in after-school programs might be misplaced.
“These programs have to do many things besides academics if kids are going to want to go,” she said. “Well-run, creative programs can build on what happens during the school day, give kids choices, and help them achieve in life as well as in school.”
Adolescents in the survey emerged as reluctant to take part in academic programs after school and during the summer.
Of the 609 students in grades 6-12 interviewed for the study, more than half said they’d rather not do more academic work after school, but admitted they could use academic help and said they would be at least somewhat interested in such programs.
Low-income and minority parents were more likely than their wealthier and white counterparts to cite strengthening academic skills as an important goal of after-school programs. More than half the low-income and minority parents said they would go out of their way to find such a program, compared with fewer than a third of the white or higher-income parents.
Low-income and minority parents were also far likelier to report difficulty finding satisfactory programs.
Minority students and those from low-income families echoed their parents’ feelings, saying in much greater numbers than their white and more affluent peers that they were interested in academically focused after-school and summer programs.
Joyce Shortt, a co-director of the National Institute on Out- of-School Time, at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, views the diversity of needs shown by the survey as confirmation that strong local leadership could play a crucial role in ensuring the right programs for communities.
More than two dozen cities now have liaisons who coordinate city and school resources for after-school care, she said. She cited an initiative by the mayor’s office in Columbus, Ohio, that helps develop such programs.
“We need community approaches that coordinate what’s already available, identify gaps of what’s needed, and help to address those gaps,” Ms. Shortt said.
A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2004 edition of Education Week as After-School Programs Must Engage Interests, Parents, Students Say