Co-authored by Cathy Tisdale, National President and CEO of Camp Fire
Every new year most of us make resolutions, usually of the self-improvement variety. Sometimes we promise ourselves that we'll spend more time exercising and less time eating and drinking; be more patient with in-laws, parents or children; leave work at work so as to keep life in balance. Those are all good and useful resolutions.
But as the new year begins to fade, we're going in a different direction. We're both active in the afterschool movement in the United States -- the push to make sure that every child who needs an afterschool program has access to one. After all, afterschool programs keep kids safe and constructively engaged, inspire them to learn, and help working parents.
A lot of lawmakers seem to view afterschool as if it were simply an extra dose of class time. Indeed, it can be that -- but it's so much more. Afterschool absolutely helps students with their academics. But equally important, it gives them a chance to grow in many other ways -- to get meaningful exercise, to learn teamwork and to resolve conflicts, to understand the benefits of healthy eating, to steer clear of dangerous behaviors like drugs and crime. Those are very real and important components of afterschool that aren't necessarily reflected in grades or test scores.
We're making a long-term commitment to change the dynamic and send that message to policymakers, funders, and everyone who is concerned about our children's and our country's future.
Afterschool has accomplished a lot already, as demonstrated by a massive body of research. From improving students' building blocks of learning (including better attendance, stronger homework completion, and better behavior), to exciting them about possible careers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields so critical to our 21st century economy, to strengthening their grades and test scores, it's clear that afterschool helps make for stronger students.
But those largely academic-focused measures don't come close to capturing all the benefits of afterschool programs.
One secret to afterschool's success since programs began proliferating 20 years or so ago is that they foster collaboration among parents, children, educators, community and religious organizations, and local businesses -- all focused around helping our children and youth succeed. Along the way, they bring students into contact with people and activities they're not likely to encounter during the regular school day. So, for example, a lot of afterschool students participate in robotics programs, and work closely not just with their classmates, but also with engineers from local companies who volunteer their time. Various other programs offer a range of similar activities, often tailored to community needs and interests. So it's not uncommon to find afterschool students working side by side with actors from local theater companies, professors or graduate students from nearby universities, leaders in the local business community, college or professional athletes, and others.
Another distinguishing feature of the afterschool experience for kids is that learning often takes place by doing -- with sleeves rolled up, working in groups. Not only does the approach lend itself nicely to STEM topics, among others, it also helps children learn to work collaboratively with one another, and with adults from the community. Such experiences serve them well later on when they're in the workforce, and also help them with one of the other great tasks of childhood: learning to get along with and respect their peers. That is one of many ways afterschool programs help develop not just the student, but the whole child.
So throughout 2014, that will be a focus for us in our day-to-day work, and we hope for the rest of the afterschool movement as well. We intend to send a clear message that afterschool programs are great at helping kids succeed academically, but just as good at helping them succeed as they become adults. Moreover, that's the yardstick by which afterschool should be measured. It's not just about state assessment tests and report cards; it's also about what kinds of adults our kids grow into.
In some ways, that raises the bar for afterschool providers, too -- and that's a good thing. Over the years, providers have grown accustomed to evaluations focused on grades and test scores, and that's had an impact on the shape of their programs. But as a profession, we need to develop and implement stronger measures for the full slate of benefits afterschool offers to our kids. And we need to trumpet those aspects of afterschool loudly and proudly.
So there's our resolution for 2014 and we are already operationalizing it in our work. It grows out of the pride we feel in the work of afterschool programs across the nation, and we hope we can help shape the way all of us -- providers, parents, administrators, community leaders, elected officials -- talk about afterschool this year, and assess its success in years to come.
Jodi Grant is the Executive Director of the Afterschool Alliance.