Marcel Braithwaite likes nearly every sport, except running, so it’s a sign of his commitment to after-school programs that he’ll be running a 5K race in a few weeks to raise money for the 26 after-school centers run by the Police Athletic League (PAL) of New York City.
He doesn’t really have a choice, notes Braithwaite with a laugh. He’s director of operations for the PAL and is one of 15 program leaders selected for this year’s group of after-school ambassadors by the Afterschool Alliance. They’ll spend the next year organizing activities to expand support for and access to these programs.
“So many people here in New York City, intelligent young professionals, grew up in the city and participated in programming like PAL, but they’re not connected to supporting it,” said Braithwaite.
The Washington-based Afterschool Alliance started the ambassador program in 2003 to build a nationwide network of advocates who “will mobilize even more support for quality after-school and summer learning programs among parents, business, and community leaders, lawmakers, educators, and others in their communities and statewide,” said Jodi Grant, executive director of the Alliance, in a written statement.
To date, more than 200 after-school program directors have participated in the program. Each class of ambassadors attends sort of a crash-course training session to learn how after-school and summer programs are funded in their states and in Congress and how they can try to inform those decisions through the media and organizing campaigns. They also commit to organizing a major event for this year’s Lights on Afterschool, an annual rally in support of after-school programming that’s sponsored by the Afterschool Alliance. Last year’s event drew more than one million people to activities in about 8,000 communities.
The Alliance provides a small stipend to help ambassadors organize the events. Braithwaite is planning a series of activities and
speaking engagements throughout the year to change the public’s perception of after-school programs.
“After-school programming in this day and age is much more than a place to leave the kids for a couple of hours,” Braithwaite added. The kids are really getting enhancement on their school day education, from STEM programming to fitness and recreation, to nutrition programming, and life skills development.
In Washington State’s Lower Yakima Valley, which couldn’t be more geographically or demographically distant from New York City, Beth Wyant, the program director of the Northwest Community Action Center, said the support she’s receiving from other ambassadors and the Alliance is invaluable.
They send information on everything from what’s happening in the legislature to “something as simple as if you want to talk to the media,” Wyant said. “You want to get the word out, here’s how you do that, these are letters that you can send out. They give us examples or if we have questions about who to contact they are right there to help us with that.”
Wyant shares all the information and training she receives with supervisors at the 15 after-school sites run by the Northwest Community Action Center, which serve 1,350 students, including on the Yakima Indian Reservation. Poverty runs deep in this region. More than a third of the students in the region’s public schools are English-learners and 17 percent are children of migrant farm workers. Just over half graduate from high school.
The students’ deprivation goes beyond family income. Living in a rural area, they’re not exposed to many things that most Americans take for granted. Most of the students have never been to Seattle or seen tall buildings; they’ve never walked in a forest or attended a professional ball game.
“We take them on field trips, we take them up to Mt. Rainier so they can go hiking. A lot of our students have never been past Yakima,” said Wyant.
In Tennessee, it’s sitting on a sandy beach that’s a first for many students in this landlocked state.
“If you can, imagine the first time that you ever saw the ocean and heard the roar of the waves,” recalled Kelly Drummond, the administrative vice president for the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Tennessee Valley and a newly minted ambassador.
Because their experiences are so limited by circumstances out of their control, Drummond dislikes the commonly used term “at risk” to describe students attending after-school programs. She prefers to say that these students “have a need” for the same opportunities as everyone else, an underpinning of the clubs’ philosophy to “build a sense of belonging, influence, and competency in our young people.”
Drummond was asked to apply to be an ambassador by members of the Tennessee Afterschool Network, a year-old coalition of after-school providers that’s advocating for more programs and developing statewide standards.
The Network’s priorities for this year, and the focus of its Lights on Afterschool events, are to improve and expand academic enrichment programs, especially in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—and to expand efforts to curb summer learning loss.
In Yakima Valley, Wyant’s goal as an ambassador is to use the ambassador position as a platform to increase awareness of the need for more after-school programs to help working families and inspire children to learn. She said students who attend regularly have higher test scores, better school attendance and fewer behavioral problems than students who don’t participate in the programs.
“Exposing them to things that they had never thought about before, to careers that they had never heard of before, that suddenly can change the course of their lives,” said Wyant.
Photos top to bottom: Marcel Braithwaite playing with children in an officially opened fire hydrant outside the Harlem PAL office. (Photo courtesy of PAL New York City). Ida Atkins, a 17-year-old senior at Yakima Nation Tribal School, volunteers to band ducks for a wildlife management program, courtesy Northwest Community Action Center. Staff of Tennessee Boys and Girls Clubs train in circuits and robotics for after-school STEM enrichment (Photo courtesy of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Tennessee Valley).
A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.