School & District Management

The Key Challenges After-School Programs Are Facing, in Charts

By Caitlynn Peetz & Laura Baker — May 17, 2023 5 min read
Michael Crowder, 11, right, reads to Tim McNeeley, left, during an after-school literacy program in Atlanta on April 6, 2023. McNeeley, director of the Atlanta based Pure Hope Project, hosts the daily program for children in kindergarten through fifth grade.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Helping students catch up academically after prolonged pandemic school closures and disruptions is no small feat.

Students across the country—regardless of age, location, and socioeconomic background—suffered historic blows to their achievement in key subjects like math and literacy, according to national assessment scores.

With billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief money in hand, many districts have turned to after-school programs as a key strategy to provide students with more learning time in hopes of catching them up.

But after-school programs are struggling to deliver on their promise, largely for logistical reasons.

Research has shown that they’re an effective solution to a range of academic woes, but three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, after-school program operators report that they have less capacity than they did before the pandemic. Programs are struggling to recruit enough staff to accommodate more students, and inflation has translated into higher operating costs, all eating into the programs’ capacity to serve children who need an academic boost.

An Afterschool Alliance survey conducted last fall found that most after-school programs have waitlists of students they can’t serve, in part because they’ve struggled to hire enough staff. The survey found that 94 percent of programs are open and operating, but about a quarter can’t serve as many students as they did before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s a look at the challenges after-school programs are facing.


After-school programs’ proven track record

Research shows that tutoring and other school-based programs are tied to increased academic achievement in core content areas, especially for students who traditionally struggle most, like English learners, students from low-income families, and students in special education programs.

Basically, research shows that extra time in the classroom, including in the form of after-school programs, can help accelerate students’ learning. And if there’s ever been a moment when students need extra learning time, it’s now, to avoid being left permanently behind where they should be academically.

The caveat is that more time on its own isn’t a panacea. After-school programs need to be run by high-quality teachers who tie the lessons back to content students learn during the normal school day. Extra time on its own isn’t enough—districts have to be intentional in how they use it.

Following nationwide school closures in 2020, federal lawmakers earmarked billions of dollars for districts across the country to supplement efforts to catch students up, and those efforts have often included adding or expanding after-school programs. But those funds are set to expire in 2024, which could stunt schools’ efforts to sustain those programs.

Many districts are already thinking ahead, though, and have said they are eyeing partnerships with community organizations to continue programs that have proven successful. Some have said they hope to identify other available funding streams from state education agencies and the federal government, and use a mix of funding sources to maintain critical programs.

The Afterschool Alliance has called for additional federal funding for after-school programs through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant. The group has criticized President Joe Biden for not including additional funding in his proposed budget for the next fiscal year.


More programs have waitlists

While programs that shut down or went fully virtual in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic are largely back up and running, they’re not reaching all of the students who could benefit from them, or even all students who want to enroll.

Nearly half of after-school program providers reported having waitlists for students in an EdWeek Research Center survey in May and June of 2022.

As a result, it’s likely students on those waitlists are missing out on opportunities they need to catch up academically, the Research Center concluded from its survey, which included responses from 269 school principals, 384 after-school program managers, and 328 other after-school program staffers.

The Afterschool Alliance’s survey, conducted months later, showed that waitlists were persisting.

More after-school program providers (53 percent) reported a waitlist for students in the fall than in any previous iterations of the survey, conducted seasonally since the summer of 2020.

Data visual showing 53% of afterschool programs have a waitlist.

Challenges in recruiting and retaining staff is a key problem

The Afterschool Alliance’s survey pointed to staffing challenges as a key factor in standing up and maintaining after-school programs.

In the fall of 2022, 85 percent of providers reported that they were at least somewhat concerned about staffing. A workforce shortage has been a top concern among program operators since the summer of 2020, but the concern has grown more acute over time, the survey showed.

The problems are reflective of those facing districts during the academic year, as many continued to report openings well into the year last fall in subjects ranging from special education to math and science.

Without enough staff, after-school programs have to operate at limited capacity, contributing to those waitlists.


Students who need support most are least likely to participate

Most students participating in after-school programs are white and from more affluent families, according to the EdWeek Research Center survey last year.

Consistent participation in after-school programs has been shown to lower dropout rates and help close achievement gaps between low-income students and their higher-income peers. For older students, regular participation in an after-school program may also deter them from participating in risky behaviors, like drug use, and help them gain skills needed for college and careers.

But after-school programs aren’t serving as many students as they need, nor the students who are most in need of the help.


In-person programming adds to per-pupil costs

It’s not just staffing adding wrinkles to districts’ after-school programming plans. Inflation and higher costs of supplies have increased per-student costs, many providers report, reducing the number of students the programs can serve.

Those extra costs apply to snacks and meals and transportation, all of which were essentially nonissues when programs were operating virtually. Still, after-school program operators most commonly pointed to staffing costs as a reason for higher per-pupil costs, according to the Afterschool Alliance survey.

In the Afterschool Alliance survey, 46 percent of providers last fall estimated that their weekly cost per child had increased by 10 percent or less, while 39 percent said it had increased 11-25 percent. Six percent said it had increased 26-50 percent, and 2 percent said it had increased more than 50 percent.


Related Content

Group of elementary girls in art class coloring with markers and one girl in the back ground cutting something out of construction paper.
iStock/Getty
Budget & Finance Schools Used ESSER Funds for After-School Programs. What Happens When the Money Runs Out?
Partnerships and blending other funding streams together are two ways to sustain after-school programs, experts say.
Lauraine Langreo, April 11, 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.
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.
Jeff Swensen for Education Week
Student Well-Being After-School Programs Can't Enroll as Many Students as Before Pandemic, Survey Says
More than half of the country’s after-school programs have waitlists, according to a new survey.
Caitlynn Peetz, March 2, 2023
6 min read
Teacher working in a classroom.
JohnnyGreig/E+
The State of After-School Programs (EdWeek Research Center Data)
After-school activities may be one option for assisting students and providing educational or social-emotional support as they recover lost ground. But the challenges of the pandemic—ranging from staffing issues to economic turmoil— might impact the capacity of after-school programs to offer services.

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.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Quiz What Do You Know About the Most Influential People in School Districts? Take Our Quiz
Answer 7 questions about the superintendent profession.
1 min read
Image of icons for gender, pay, demographics.
Canva
School & District Management Opinion I Invited My Students to Be the Principal for a Day. Here’s What I Learned
When I felt myself slipping into a springtime slump, this simple activity reminded me of my “why” as an educator.
S. Kambar Khoshaba
4 min read
052024 OPINION Khoshaba PRINCIPAL end the year with positivity
E+/Getty + Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management The Complicated Fight Over Four-Day School Weeks
Missouri lawmakers want to encourage large districts to maintain five-day weeks—even as four-day weeks grow more popular.
7 min read
Calendar 4 day week
iStock/Getty
School & District Management From Our Research Center Principal Salaries: The Gap Between Expectation and Reality
Exclusive survey data indicate a gap between the expectations and the realities of principal pay.
4 min read
A Black woman is standing on a ladder and looking into the distance with binoculars, in the background is an ascending arrow.
iStock/Getty