Climbing into bouncy, inflatable armchairs, the 1st graders open their bags of popcorn and wait for Sophia Tino Mina, a staff member at Esperanza Elementary School, to begin a story.
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|More information on activities planned for Lights On Afterschool is available from the Afterschool Alliance. A free information action kit (requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader) can be downloaded or ordered by calling (877) 433-7827.|
On the other side of the cement playground at this urban campus just west of downtown Los Angeles, 3rd graders are handed $20 worth of Monopoly money for a pretend shopping trip through an educational supply catalog. Then they’ll write about their choices.
Activities like these, which help build literacy skills, are an everyday part of L.A.'s BEST, an after-school program operating at 76 high- poverty schools in the 723,000-student school district. L.A.'s BESTwhich stands for Better Educated Students for Tomorrow—is among the well-planned programs around the country that are being highlighted this week during Lights On Afterschool. The first-ever, one-day event is intended to draw attention to safe and stimulating programs serving children after school, and to what the organizers see as the need for many more such programs.
On Oct. 12, schools, libraries, parks, community centers, and other facilities with after-school programs are scheduled to open their doors to visitors. At least 700 communities have signed up to participate.
The event has been organized by the Afterschool Alliance, a growing public-private partnership that includes JC Penney, the Flint, Mich.-based Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the National Community Education Association, based in Fairfax, Va., and the U.S. Department of Education.
Judy Y. Samelson, the acting director of the Washington-based alliance, which is only a year old and is in the process of becoming a nonprofit organization, said the plan is to make Lights On Afterschool a yearly event.
“We knew from the outset that we wanted to capture the spirit of the after-school movement,” Ms. Samelson said. The event is needed, she added, because the people who run the programs are usually too busy to worry about public relations.
Ice Hockey to Sculpture
Here in the nation’s second-largest school district, Mayor Richard J. Riordan of Los Angeles is to join district officials, community leaders, parents, and children at Logan Elementary School—also an L.A.'s BEST site—for an open house and a tour of the program.
But all sorts of activities are planned throughout the country:
- In New York City, elementary school pupils involved in the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s after-school program will give a performance.
- In Seattle, guests including Gov. Gary Locke of Washington and Microsoft founder Bill Gates will participate in after-school activities offered at Denny Middle School, including ice hockey, jazz music, and a pizza party.
- And in the nation’s capital, children from local after-school programs will visit the U.S. House of Representatives to show off their skills in using wireless Internet technology and transforming recycled objects into sculpture. “I think the idea of an annual public-awareness event is very smart,” said Mary Lavo Ford, the director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, located at Wellesley College’s Center for Research on Women, in Wellesley, Mass. “We need to think long-term about ways to build quality in these programs.”
Research and Practice
Increasing the number of good after-school programs has become a prominent issue at both the state and federal levels.
Under President Clinton, funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program has grown from $40 million in the 1998 fiscal year to more than $450 million in fiscal 2000. About 3,600 schools are now participating in the program, which provides funding for after-school services.
Mr. Clinton wants to increase that amount to $1 billion in the next federal budget, and Vice President Al Gore proposes to double that to $2 billion if he is elected president. Mr. Gore’s Republican rival, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, proposes to allow faith- based and community organizations to seek funding under the program, which is currently limited to schools. Both candidates also have proposals designed to help families with after-school costs. Policymakers and advocates often point to studies showing that violent crimes committed by juveniles increase during the hours after school.
A study released last month by the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, showed that some 4 million children between the ages of 6 and 12 are spending some time caring for themselves after school—a situation that can be especially risky for very young children or for those who live in low-income neighborhoods, the researchers said.
And earlier this year, the Afterschool Alliance released a nationally conducted poll that found strong public support for after-school programs. Sixty-two percent of the 800 voters interviewed said they would be willing to pay $100 more in state taxes each year to provide after-school programs for all children whose parents wanted them to attend, and 80 percent said that the federal government should provide funds for after-school programs.The alliance has prepared an “Afterschool Action Kit” intended to answer questions that parents, educators, and others might have about finding or setting up appropriate after-school programs.
Experts say that high-quality after-school programs provide children time for homework and reading but also offer a range of other activities, such as sports, drama, and music. Other features can include field trips and community-service projects.
Children also need time to relax and interact with their peers, Ms. Ford said.
Carla Sanger, the president of L.A.'s BEST, which was established in 1988 and is operated by the mayor’s office in partnership with the Los Angeles school district, said the program is successful because it is tailored to the needs of each school.
“There is no one-and-only prescription,” she said.
For example, at Logan Elementary School, the scene is quite different from the one at Esperanza. In the Logan cafeteria, the after-school drill team practices a routine with military precision. In a classroom, children pass around seashells and look them up in a book. Outside, a group of 2nd through 5th graders rehearses a dance to the Michael Jackson song “Beat It” for a citywide anti-violence event.
“We try to offer things that kids don’t get in school or at home,” said Julio Ramirez, the site coordinator for Logan’s program.
A study released in June, which was conducted by the Center for the Study of Evaluation at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that children who participated in L.A.'s BEST performed better on standardized tests of mathematics, reading, and language arts and had better school attendance than children at the same school who were not in the program.
Achievement increases, Ms. Sanger said, because the after- school activities make children want to come to school.