The push for higher academic standards and student achievement is now extending beyond the school day, fueling a growing demand for high-quality after-school programs, professionals in the after-school field said at a recent meeting here.
More than 2,500 representatives of school districts, recreation departments, church groups, and private ventures who met at the National AfterSchool Association conference late last month heard calls to raise the profile of their sector among parents, educators, and policymakers.
“We know there are growing demands for after-school programs, and we know that evidence of their effectiveness is growing,” said Jen Rinehart, the associate director of the Washington-based Afterschool Alliance, a network of advocacy groups, policymakers, after-school care providers, and business leaders.
One Ohio study for example, found that 4th graders in the state’s urban School Age Child Care Project exceeded statewide percentages of students achieving proficiency on tests in writing, reading, mathematics, civics, and science. Sixth graders in the program exceeded statewide percentages in all but science.
Ms. Rinehart outlined survey and research data showing that while some 6.5 million children nationally attend after-school programs, more than 15 million others would likely take part if appropriate and affordable programs were available. Many of those children are now unsupervised after school, according to U.S. Census data.
But the best ways to meet the growing need for what has long been thought of as child care is to design programs that complement students’ academic pursuits as well as their social and developmental needs, said Ms. Rinehart and other presenters at the Feb. 23-25 conference.
No longer seen as simply a chance for free play or vegging out, after-school time for students in extended care is being tapped increasingly for its personal and academic enrichment potential.
“After-school is being looked at as not school extended, but linked to schools,” said Terry K. Peterson, the chairman of the board of the Afterschool Alliance, which was founded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, in Flint, Mich., and the U.S. Department of Education. “It needs to be a really good reading program, but also a very good youth-development program,” he said.
Thirty-one states have set up networks for after-school programs to craft policies and standards and to raise awareness of the need for such programs and more resources to support them, Mr. Peterson said.
Funding, however, is vulnerable. Half the states were unable to provide money for new programs under the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers program because of budget cuts to the federal program and state contributions, according to the alliance.
In Kentucky, “we kind of go as goes the state budget,” said Kerri Schelling of the Kentucky School Boards Association. “It is very hard to sustain a program when the funding is unstable.”
Aside from funding, just how to craft those programs is very much up for debate. After-school activities should not simply be a continuation of the kinds of instruction students receive during the school day, said Mr. Peterson, who is also the director of the National Resource Network for Afterschool and Community Education.
Some policymakers see after-school programming as “way too much fun,” he said. “But after-school should include singing, dancing, and doing experiments,” he said, and math, science, and reading can be “embedded in that learning experience.”
The debate over the content of out-of-school programming is also raging overseas, where many schools—like their American counterparts—are struggling to improve student achievement and sharpen their students’ competitive edge.
In Denmark and other countries in Europe, before- and after-school professionals are feeling pressure to scale back playtime and incorporate more homework help and other academic activities, Stig Lund, a senior adviser to the union, the Danish National Federation of Early Childhood Teachers and Youth Directors, told conference-goers.
“The discussion is about coordinating school coursework with after-school programs as a kind of ‘educare,’ ” Mr. Lund said of Denmark’s system of school-age child care, which is mostly government-financed.
“But we need to develop their competencies in a caring environment,” he added. “I am a bit afraid that [the attention to students’ social development] will disappear.”