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Jodi Grant

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Afterschool Programs in Peril

Posted: 01/24/2012 5:21 pm

In communities from coast to coast, afterschool programs are making a huge difference, keeping children safe, inspiring them to learn, and helping their working parents. Understanding that schools alone won't address all of our children's needs, afterschool programs complement and supplement the school day, often coordinating closely with teachers and principals to help students succeed. Support for quality afterschool programs is needed more than ever, yet the Department of Education is embracing policies that could devastate afterschool funding and the partnerships that make them so strong.

Today's afterschool programs are innovation labs for learning. Through decades of practice and evaluation, they have refined the "afterschool approach" to expanding learning: offering hands-on experiences that make lessons come alive, often in collaboration with community-based organizations, businesses, colleges and universities, museums and local government.

Students in afterschool programs are exposed to a range of horizon-expanding opportunities. From an expert on robotics, they might learn to design and build a robot to compete nationally. From a local chef, they might learn to prepare a tasty and nutritious meal. From a local business leader, they might get insights into making a business click. From a nearby museum curator, they might get a look behind the scenes of a local science center, and learn about careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. And from a local university professor or college student, they might get a tour of a college campus and start imagining how they could fit into the picture after high school.

It's not just the substance of such activities that are important. It's also the people with whom kids come in contact. Community leaders, scientists, engineers, professors, government officials, college students, and others they encounter through afterschool programs are role models and mentors. That's a particular benefit for low-income students, who often have a limited view of what awaits them after high school.

Afterschool accomplishes all that while keeping kids safe -- no small thing for kids in communities challenged by crime. The afternoon hours can be downright dangerous for children, left to themselves without adult supervision. By contrast, students in afterschool programs are less likely to join gangs, be the victims or perpetrators of violence, become teen parents or engage in other inappropriate behaviors. Afterschool programs are also a lifeline for working parents, who are eager to have their children engaged and safe, getting help with their homework, while parents are working. One study showed businesses saved hundreds of billions of dollars because parents are more productive when they know their children are safe after school.

Afterschool programs also have an important impact on student academic achievement. Years of research shows that quality afterschool programs help students excel during the school day as well. Studies have found gains for afterschool students in attendance, study habits, behavior, grades and test scores. Indeed, the Afterschool Alliance is thrilled to be working with the Broader Bolder Approach to education, whose research and reports demonstrate the importance of quality afterschool enrichment in improving school and life success of at-risk students.

Unfortunately, only a minority of the nation's children have access to an afterschool program. Research released by the Afterschool Alliance in 2009 found that about 15 percent of America's children -- about 8.4 million -- are in a program. The parents of 18.5 million children say they'd enroll their kids, if a program were available. That is the problem: We don't have enough afterschool programs. And many programs are being forced to trim their offerings or close their doors due to the struggling economy and budget cutbacks it has brought.

Worse, afterschool programs are being pitted against policy proposals to extend the school day. The U.S. Department of Education is offering waivers to allow states to open the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative -- which until now has supported only before school, afterschool and summer learning programs -- to instead be used by school districts to pay for a longer school day.

It's hard to argue against more learning time, but what matters most is how that time is spent. More of the same is not going to help, especially if it is done at the expense of the afterschool programs that help students thrive.

Extending the school day is more expensive than running an afterschool program; the diversion of funds for every school that gets additional classroom time would likely cause six afterschool programs to close. That would leave families without safe, supervised activities for their children in the afternoons and it would rob children of activities that help them discover their love of learning. Even in the schools with longer days, families would still have big gaps to fill before parents return home from work.

Kids need engaging and exciting activities that are educational and fun. Today's afterschool programs create partnerships between schools and community-based organizations to offer just that. We should band together to expand the quality afterschool programs that offer engaging learning opportunities for our children.

The Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog recently conducted a lively debate on the topic, well worth checking out. And there's more on the Afterschool Alliance's website, as well.

The Afterschool Alliance is a nonprofit organization that works to ensure that all children have access to affordable, quality afterschool programs.