Dallas Shows Investing In After-School Programs Is A No-Brainer

Engaging students after school offers high returns and need calls for more federal support, not less
04/18/2017 07:37 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2017
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In the president’s budget proposal, money for after-school programs has been eliminated. Mick Mulvaney, White House budget director, said: “There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually helping kids do better in schools.” However, the science is clear: after-school programs work. While there has certainly always been a gap between what the scientific community believes and what politicians and practitioners put into place, that gap has never been wider than now.  Evidence clearly shows after-school programming is a key tool in our efforts to address educational disparities and should, instead, see funding increased. Yes, after-school and summer programming improves academic performance, but that’s not all. These programs also provide safe spaces, nutritious meals, physical activity and social and emotional supports that all add up to a happier, healthier, more productive citizenry.  Nationwide, children who attend quality after-school programs have better school attendance, reduced incidents of behavior problems and improved academic performance. This includes programs that focus on social and emotional development, and academics. In Dallas, where we’re monitoring after-school program outcomes, students generally perform better on measures of reading and math than students who do not attend after-school programs. We know what works to help youth succeed, especially the most disadvantaged. The question is, why won’t we do it?  Unfortunately, like so many other pressing issues, after-school, too, is about social justice and pervasive issues of equity. Access to out-of-school learning opportunities that really makes a difference later on varies depending on who you are, and where you are from. By the time middle-class kids are 11, they will have had 6,000 more hours of learning experiences than their low-income counterparts. Two-thirds of this gap is due to after-school and summer learning opportunities. The lack of affordable after-school programs for children is an opportunity gap that leads to an achievement gap. A John Hopkins study found low-income students lose an average of two months of learning. Without summer and after-school programs, these cumulative gaps continue to grow leaving these children further behind. And yet, these opportunities are not equally available for all youth. Nationally, 18 percent of children attend after-school programs. Some communities have even higher rates, but access is not available to all. For example, there are enough after-school centers for 25 percent of children in Dallas County to attend after-school according to Dallas Afterschool, but with more than 350,000 children between 5 and 14, there are only 16,000 free or low-cost after-school seats. Further, access to programs is geographically bound, and “program deserts” exist in all-too-predictable places; those who suffer from a lack of many other kinds of resources as well. This all adds up to mean that lack of quality after-school opportunities intersects with, and compounds, other existing challenges.  Luckily, we see instances where the effects of strong after-school programming are most impactful for students most in need. Christina Hanger is CEO of Dallas Afterschool and a Dallas Public Voices fellow. Annie Wright, Ph.D. is director of evaluation at CORE SMU and a Dallas Public Voices fellow.