Effective after-school and expanded learning programs can play a vital role in student success. In fact, when researchers at the Harvard Family Research Project analyzed a decade of research and evaluation studies a few years ago, they concluded that “children and youth who participate in after-school programs can reap a host of positive benefits in a number of interrelated outcome areas—academic, social/emotional, prevention, and health and wellness” (Little, Wimer, & Weiss, 2008).
Quality after-school programs don’t just “happen,” however. Coordination among after-school and school-day personnel is essential, as is district support.
Supporting and Enhancing Academic Achievement
Numerous studies suggest that high-quality after-school programs enhance students’ academic success in school. After-school programs lead to better attitudes toward school and stronger school engagement; stronger school performance, as measured by standardized test scores and grades; higher rates of school attendance; fewer behavioral problems; and lower dropout rates (Afterschool Alliance, 2008).
A meta-analysis of 35 research studies employing either quasi-experimental or experimental research designs found a small but significant positive effect of such programs on both reading and mathematics achievement, with larger effects for programs that offered tutoring in reading. After-school and summer programs were equally effective (Lauer et al., 2006). Research and evaluation studies conducted over the past decade with LA’s BEST, a school-based after-school program offered to 19,000 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, consistently shows that participation promotes school-day attendance and engagement, such as higher aspirations toward graduation (Goldschmidt, Huang, & Chinen, 2007). Even more important, students participating in the elementary program had lower dropout rates, particularly among low-income children. A two-year study of 12 after-school programs spread across eight states with 3,000 disadvantaged children also demonstrated that regular program participation is associated with higher test scores, better work habits, and fewer behavior problems (Vandell, Resiner, & Pierce, 2007).
Evaluations of expanded learning time programs demonstrate similar benefits for students’ academic achievement. One such program is Citizens Schools, a multidimensional program that includes service learning, experiential learning, mentorship, academic skill building, and homework support. Academic benefits include selection of higher-quality high schools, increased school attendance, increased promotion to the next grade, and decreases in suspension and negative behaviors. Student participants also demonstrated significant gains in some measures of grades and test scores (Fabiano, Pearson, & Williams, 2005).
Supporting Emotional and Social Well-Being
Compelling evidence suggests that after-school programs provide a range of supports that enhance students’ emotional and social well-being. Finding a dearth of literature on the impact of after-school programs on personal and social skills, Durlak & Weissburg (2007) conducted a systematic meta-analysis of 73 out-of-school-time programs employing quasi-experimental or experimental designs. These programs offered services to children ages 5 to 19 and focused on personal and social skills, including problem solving, conflict resolution, self-control, leadership, responsible decision making, and enhancement of self-efficacy and self-esteem.
Durlak and Weissburg learned that after-school programs designed to promote personal and social skills were effective in ways such as these: enhanced confidence among students; improved positive feelings toward school; increased test scores and grades; promoted positive behaviors toward peers and adults; reduced aggression, noncompliance and conduct problems; and reduced drug use.
Durlak and Weissburg also found that effective programs employed evidence-based skill training programs combining a sequential and active training progress, with focused and explicit content. Programs that are explicit about their goals and actively engage students are most likely to promote student success.
Key Program Factors: Quality and Alignment with the School Day
A common thread among the research evidence is quality. Again and again, a broad body of evidence suggests that high-quality after-school programs have an important positive impact on the lives of children and youth (Beckett, et al., 2009; Little, Wimer, & Weiss, 2008; Palmer, Anderson, & Sabatelli, 2009).
In their 2009 synthesis of the literature on program quality, Palmer, Anderson and Sabatelli suggest that well-prepared staff with adequate resources and professional development supports can build after-school programs with a safe, enriching climate; foster positive relationships with the youth they serve; offer focused, intentional programming; and build strong partnerships with families, school leaders and the larger community to enrich and enhance their work. When programs concentrate on these core elements, they are likely to create an environment where children and youth succeed. Several tools exist to assess program quality and program environment (see “Tools for Assessing After-school Program Quality”). Student success is also encouraged when the after-school program aligns with the vision and mission of the school-day program. After-school practitioners who participate in the daily school-day activities are able to connect with school-day staff to learn how they might best support individual student needs. The U.S. Department of Education recently released a set of action tips for aligning an after-school program with the school day.
• Shared responsibility for student learning and development. When after-school practitioners share the responsibility, they interact with school-day professionals and families to connect academic learning to everyday life.
• Data-driven decisions and communication about student progress. After-school practitioners who learn about students’ academic strengths and weaknesses, either through informal check-ins with teachers or through study of test scores and report scores, understand students’ needs and can align their homework support and activities appropriately.
• High-quality staff. Programs that hire high-quality teachers and other adults with substantive experience in youth development are more likely to support students with special needs and language needs, provide developmental and social/emotional support, and use instructional approaches that support academic improvement.
• Planning and preparation time. All staff need dedicated, paid time to participate in professional development and to plan how to use time in the after-school program to maximize students’ success.
• Partnerships at multiple levels in the school and district. Through regular, two-way communication, after-school practitioners, school-day staff and other community partners will understand one another’s skills and roles.
• Connections to family and community resources. Programs that train after-school staff members to be receptive to and supportive of students’ families will create an environment of trust and respect. Families will be comfortable approaching staff when they need help resolving an academic or social issue with their son or daughter.
For more information on aligning your afterschool program with the school day, visit y4y.ed.gov for a 30-minute course, “Aligning with the School Day,” or read practitioner tips at y4y.ed.gov/content/resources/DCID20110616221706.pdf.
Connecting the Dots
After-school and expanded learning time programs have real potential to enhance students’ academic, social and developmental success. However, these programs are most successful when carefully planned and supported by school and district administrators. A coordinated strategy that connects the dots from the school day to after school, and with families and the larger community, can improve and increase student achievement and support youth development.
Sherri Lauver is a senior research associate and project director at Synergy Enterprises. She recently coauthored a chapter in Expanded Learning Time and Opportunities, edited by Helen Janc Malone (Jossey-Bass, 2011).