Time—On Teens’ Terms

By Linda Jacobson — September 22, 2008 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 11 min read
Tristan Oliver, 18, Kamila Holmes, 14, and James Hardaway, 18, practice before a jazz band performance at the Family Fun Tent in Millenium Park last month as part of After School Matters.
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Corrected: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect number of participating high schools. It is 62 this academic year. Also, it incorrectly identified the status of supervisors for a martial arts program at JHP Community Center; they were instructors.

In a city park facility on the South Side, about 25 Chicago teenagers warm up their speaking voices by using tongue twisters. “A big black bug bit a big black bear,” they recite, using clear pronunciation and getting faster with each repetition.

After the exercises, a young man sitting at a laptop computer plays recordings, which he mixed himself, that will be used later that week at the students’ first radio program taped in front of a live audience. “Listen in and now you know. Teen Talk Radio,” plays the theme song, a blend of singing and rap.

Exploring serious issues, such as dating violence, rape, and suicide, the short public service announcements and radio dramas were all written, produced, directed, and performed by the students as they worked in an eight-week summer apprenticeship.

Inspired by some of the students’ own experiences, the material came “out of having a safe place to express their true feelings,” said Masequa Myers, who runs her own production company and is an instructor for Teen Talk Radio. “Too often, adults don’t find teens worthy of their attention.”

Billy Stevenson, who graduated this year from the preK-12 University of Chicago Laboratory School, said he was attracted to the program two years ago because of his interest in writing poetry and music.

“I wanted an outlet to really push my music,” said Mr. Stevenson, who is studying music business at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., this fall. “I’ve learned how to produce a show and work with such a large group of people. There are a lot of personalities.”

And it’s that combination of learning a craft and acquiring the “soft skills” needed to be successful in a career that is a large part of the mission of After School Matters, the nonprofit organization that works with Teen Talk Radio—and dozens of other community-based groups across Chicago—to connect teenagers with a vast number of opportunities in the arts, sports, technology, and communications.

Twenty-five years ago, the report A Nation at Risk urged schools to add more time to address what its authors saw as shortcomings in American education. Today, civic and education leaders recognize that students learn throughout their day—whether in class or in a meaningful pursuit outside of school—and see after-school activities as playing a vital role.

See Also

A Nation at Risk: 25 Years Later

For the collected stories and online features in this series, see A Nation at Risk: 25 Years Later.

The 13- through 19-year-olds participating in After School Matters programs don’t just sign up for sessions during the school year or over the summer. Most are hired as apprentices after a competitive interview or audition process. They receive stipends for their work, and they are treated as employees being trained to learn a very specific skill.

“The stipend sends a strong message to teens that they’re valued,” said David Sinski, the executive director of After School Matters.

The program, which now serves 28,000 teenagers from 62 Chicago high schools, is also changing the perception of high school students in the city, says Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the 409,000-student Chicago public school district, which serves as one of After School Matters’ partners.

“There was a culture of sweeping kids out of the hallways at the end of the day,” Mr. Duncan said.

After School Matters, he added, is “an extraordinary model for the country.”

And it’s one that is already being emulated outside of Illinois. The After-School Corp., or TASC, an organization working to expand after-school programs throughout New York City, recently received a $410,000 grant from the MetLife Foundation to begin its own apprenticeship program. Over the summer, 40 high school students took part as paid interns, working as coaches and camp instructors for younger children. This school year, the project will expand to 100 teenagers in New York City.

Ann Conway, 17, puts her hair in curlers before a performance last month of “West Side Story” in downtown Chicago through After School Matters.

In a July article in the Afterschool Advocate, a newsletter of the Afterschool Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy organization, Lucy N. Friedman, the president of TASC, said MetLife recognizes that After School Matters has found an approach to after-school programming that is effective with a hard-to-serve population. Older students “want to do work that really interests them, to get paid, and to see the tangible benefits of getting an education,” she wrote.

Of the more than 6 million children enrolled in after-school programs across the country, only about 8 percent are high school students, according to the Afterschool Alliance. Participation in such programs begins tapering off during the middle school years.

That’s one reason why after-school-program leaders and youth-development experts have recently been paying more attention to how to attract older students and hold their interest when other opportunities, or distractions, are available—whether sports, part-time jobs, or just hanging out.

“I think we are at a point where we have a good understanding from youth themselves,” said Georgia Hall, a senior research scientist at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, based at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

In a 2005 evaluation, high school students who were highly engaged in programs run by TASC in New York listed three reasons why the experience had been so successful for them: high-quality interactions with both the program staff and other students, opportunities to lead activities, and projects that presented opportunities “for social and interpersonal growth.”

Program providers can’t expect high school students to attend school-based programs patterned after the academic and enrichment programs designed for younger students.

After School Matters at a Glance

History: In the early 1990s, Margaret C. Daley, the wife of Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago, led an effort to turn a vacant downtown lot called Block 37 into an outdoor arts studio for the city’s teenagers. Called gallery37, the program taught a variety of skills from local professional artists. It became so successful that it inspired similar “apprenticeship” programs in sports, technology, and communications. Joined in 2000, the programs became After School Matters. More than 100 community-based organizations now take part in offering programs to students from 58 high schools of all types across Chicago.

Funding: The nonprofit organization has an annual budget of $30 million. City agencies that support the program include the City of Chicago, the school system, the park district, and the public library system. Also involved are the city’s departments of children and youth services and cultural affairs.

Earnings: Students earn amounts ranging from $50 to $540 a semester, depending on whether they are in club programs, in which they are introduced to a skill, or advanced apprenticeships, in which they take on more responsibility. In the summer, apprentices can earn as much as $1,000 because the program runs for more weeks than during the spring or fall.

SOURCE: After School Matters

“It’s insulting to them,” said Harold A. Richman, a researcher at the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, which collected data on what high school students in Chicago are doing, or would like to be doing, during the after-school hours.

Other students might be turned off by the existing after-school opportunities at their schools.

“It was all about sports, and I don’t really like sports,” said Tiera Smith, a 17-year-old student at Hyde Park Academy High School, on the South Side. She worked as an apprentice this past summer with Free Spirit Media, which works with teenagers to produce news programs. When a friend told her she could learn TV production, especially working behind the camera, Ms. Smith said she “jumped on that train.”

Turning some of the authority for activities and after-school clubs over to high school students is another way to keep young people interested and motivated, some experts say. But allowing high school students to take on responsibilities that adults are used to handling can be a risk for program leaders.

“It was very difficult because they are going through that learning curve,” said Arnel Ladringan, who hires apprentices as assistants for his martial-arts-based enrichment program for elementary school pupils at JHP Community Center on the city’s North Side.

But the fact that educators and organizations are discovering how to interest older students doesn’t mean funding for such programs has followed.

“Funding sources have tended to adhere to a philosophy that investments are more worthwhile when made at the earliest possible intervention level,” Ms. Hall wrote in a paper last fall for the Massachusetts Special Commission on After School and Out of School Time, created by the Massachusetts legislature.

“So, funding for out-of-school-time programs is skewed more towards younger school-age and middle school youth,” she wrote, “with the expectation that positive impacts are likely and visible.”

While after-school activities for high school students have long included sports teams, clubs, band, and other extracurricular offerings, budget shortfalls in many states have forced many districts to cut back on those programs or raise fees, making it even harder for students from low-income homes to participate, Ms. Hall wrote.

The MetLife Foundation and TASC were also impressed by the Chicago program’s success at improving academic achievement among the high school students who participate.

A 2007 study by researchers at Chapin Hall found that students enrolled in After School Matters had higher attendance rates than students who did not enroll. The study also accounted for the reality that those who applied for the program were likely to have higher attendance and be more motivated than students in general.

The analysis also showed that when participation in After School Matters stopped, school attendance dropped.

After again accounting for participants’ school performance before they enrolled in After School Matters, the researchers found that students involved in the program at high levels were less likely than nonparticipants to fail core academic courses.

And the researchers showed that students who were highly engaged in After School Matters once they enrolled and stayed in the program the longest—at least four semesters—were the least likely to drop out of school, compared with others in the program who were less engaged.

Still, the study also raised questions about After School Matters’ ongoing objectives, as well as the broader challenge of appealing to older students.

George Mikell, 16, gets suited up by classmantes to dance as a robot during the talent show at the Family Fun Tent in the park.

“A better understanding of the factors motivating students to sign up for the program is crucial for improving enrollment in after-school programs such as ASM,” wrote Robert M. Goerge, also a researcher at Chapin Hall and the lead author of the study. “A better knowledge of what factors make students participate more actively in the programs and stay involved could help improve student engagement and outcomes for all students enrolled.”

For program providers, questions about the achievement benefits of after-school efforts continue to be raised by researchers and policymakers—especially now, when education reformers are focusing on extending learning time to give students a better chance of meeting academic standards.

Those questions persist even when the stated goals of a program might be to improve students’ work-readiness skills, as with After School Matters, and don’t specifically include raising test scores or increasing graduation rates. (“Lack of Academic Benefits in After-School Effort Affirmed,” April 27, 2005.)

Advocates for after-school programs respond that the variety of opportunities and community-based activities that can be developed during after-school hours, such as apprenticeships, should be considered part of the discussion about extending learning time.

“We’re not so much calling it extended day, but expanded learning,” Mr. Sinski of After School Matters said, adding that such programs could even be woven throughout the school day, with academic classes running later.

An after-school organization in Concord, N.H., Plus Time NH, is even working with the state education department there to help high school students earn class credit for some of the activities or projects they do during the after-school hours. (“N.H. Seeking to Reinvigorate High Schools,” this issue.)

The After School Matters apprenticeships that involve supervising and working with younger children provide an added layer of experience and responsibility for the teenagers.

“The gap between me and the child is too wide, but the gap between the child and the teenager is closer, so there is more rapport,” said Mr. Ladringan, of the martial-arts-based program at Chicago’s JHP Community Center.

Elena Yanez, who graduated this year from Amundsen High School and is one of Mr. Ladringan’s apprentices, said realizing that the young children were imitating her words and actions inspired her to improve her attitude toward her teachers and her schoolwork.

As paid apprentices, students also encounter a level of expectation from their instructors that they may not be used to at home or at school.

The exacting standards Pierre Lockett upholds were apparent as he recently directed his group of dancers—with sweat on their foreheads and hair falling out of their ponytails—to run through the end of their routine yet again.

“We’re very clear about what we expect. We are training dancers,” said Mr. Lockett, who danced professionally for 20 years and is now an instructor for an After School Matters program run by the Joffrey Ballet. “I would put them up against a lot of professional companies.”

After observing After School Matters for two years, researcher Robert Halpern, a professor at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development here, wrote that apprenticeships are a good “developmental fit” for adolescents. Apprenticeships, he explained, meet students’ interest in having an “authentic experience” and allow them the chance to take risks, be creative, and learn the discipline and commitment necessary to become good at something.

Tiffany Howard, an 18-year-old home-schooled student, admitted with a laugh that she applied for the metal-arts apprenticeship taught by artist Ellen Glantz because she thought she would get to make jewelry. But instead, working under a large tent erected in downtown Chicago’s Millennium Park, she learned to rivet pieces of copper together to make puppets, masks, and even decorative lampshades with an aviation theme that will hang in O’Hare International Airport.

“You never know when you’ll have to apply new things,” said Ms. Howard, who wants to attend the Art Institute of Chicago.

While After School Matters has clearly provided a haven for many students who otherwise would be doing something less productive with their out-of-school time, the program is also helping teenagers discover talents and career aspirations that they might not have known they had.

Juan Guillen, a senior this fall at Amundsen High who said he “used to be one of the bad kids,” has been so inspired by his work with Mr. Ladringan at the community center that he wants to open his own martial arts classes for adults.

“It really has changed my life very much,” he said. “This is my home.”

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Special coverage marking the 25th anniversary of the landmark report A Nation at Risk is supported in part by a grant from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2008 edition of Education Week as Time-On Teens’ Terms


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