When Heidi Sipe, superintendent of Oregon’s poor, rural Umatilla School District, asks her elementary-age students what they want to be when they grow up, she no longer gets the answers she once did: football player, firefighter, nurse.
Now the students tell her they want to be engineers.
Sipe attributes the change to the district’s four-year-old STEM Academy, a homemade K12 after-school program that enrolls hundreds of students for 12 hours a week of enrichment courses, field trips and career exploration. “They can’t dream what they’ve never seen,” she says.
Like Umatilla, districts across the country are finding ways to turn after-school programs—once little more than glorified babysitting—into learning experiences that motivate students and close equity gaps. Along with YMCAs, churches and other community groups, companies like Right at School and Champions have emerged as go-to providers of after-school programs.
Germantown Hills School District in Illinois, for example, had a traditional program that three community members ran until two retired. So Superintendent Dan Mair turned to Right at School, noting that its activities are linked to Common Core standards and the arrangement is stress-free for administrators.
About 10 percent of K5 students in the district use the program, and Mair sees happier, more engaged students who also get their homework done.
And more after-school programs offer valuable learning. “School leaders really can’t afford to ignore out-of-school time,” says Katie Brackenridge, senior director for expanded learning initiatives at the nonprofit Partnership for Children & Youth, which works to improve the quality of California’s after-school programs and policies. “They need to be creative and thoughtful about how that time is used because the research is startlingly clear that the difference in kids’ experience has a lot to do with their ability to succeed.”
Connecting careers, curriculum
After-school programs—and, to a lesser extent, their lower-profile before-school equivalents—are more popular than ever: More than 10 million schoolchildren, 18 percent of the total, participated in after-school programs in 2014. That’s up from 6.5 million a decade earlier, according to a report from the Afterschool Alliance.
Another 19.4 million would enroll if a program were available, the report found.
Working parents need such services for the same reasons they always have: When school’s out, they want their children safe and supervised, not home alone surfing inappropriate websites and scarfing junk food.
“We still have lots of latchkey kids in America, and that’s not a good thing,” says Martin Blank, director of the Coalition for Community Schools, which works to link schools with community resources that can support children and families. “Kids need connectedness, they need relationships. It’s not personalized learning if you go home and watch television or if you’re on some kind of device.”
Increasingly, district leaders—especially those serving low-income students—are realizing the programs they have offered for years as aids to working parents represent a golden opportunity to enrich and extend the school day.
Although the programs typically provide snacks, outdoor playtime and homework help, they now go further, offering mini-courses in such areas as filmmaking, robotics, golf and chess, or field trips to museums, libraries and tech centers.
“If we have them for two and a half hours, let’s make it purposeful,” says Cathy Vasile, director of elementary instruction for Alabama’s Huntsville City Schools, which uses Appleton’s Afterschool Labs program. It provides the district’s STEM- and arts-focused after-school program and it is based on the Next Generation Science Standards.
Effective after-school programs align instruction with the school-day curriculum—for example, using a cooking class to reinforce lessons about fractions. After-school programs may also promote hands-on, project-based approaches to learning.
Advocates say programs can also foster critical non-cognitive skills, such as empathy, teamwork and relationship-building.
Districts and community partners like the YMCA or the Boys & Girls Clubs operate after-school programs that help students “think about careers they may have never explored, that help them build confidence, that help them learn to interact with other kids, that help them realize their studies are important,” says Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, which works to promote quality and equity in after-school programming.
While wealthy families annually spend thousands of dollars more than poor families on out-of-school enrichment for their children, advocates see after-school programs as an important tool for closing the opportunity gap.
In Sipe’s district, where most students are Hispanic, the after-school STEM Academy offers mini-courses on such topics as robotics, computer coding and bike-building. Students Skype monthly with mentors from tech companies and take field trips to the Portland headquarters of Intel. “Kids in rural areas have all the talent and none of the access,” Sipe says. “We try to use the after-school program as a way to build access to different career options.”
How to cover costs
The biggest barrier to expanding after-school programs is money. Programs often rely on parent fees—the Afterschool Alliance says parents pay, on average, $113.50 per week—or stitch together a patchwork of federal grants, state and local funding, and contributions from community partners. Staff may include local college students considering careers in education, community volunteers interested in teaching particular topics or district employees willing to extend their work days.
In Huntsville, parents pay the contractor $45 a week for daily attendance in the Afterschool Labs program, and the district retains 13 percent of the revenue. At two low-income schools, 130 students attend for free or at reduced cost, with Appleton and the district sharing the cost.
Appleton hires and trains its own staff, saving the district money and hassle. “They’re no longer your employees. You’re not having to pay benefits, you’re not having to worry about the turnover,” says Vasile of Huntsville schools.
And the $400,000 annual cost of Umatilla’s program, which is free for all district students, is covered entirely with outside money, including a grant from the federal government’s $1.1 billion 21st Century Community Learning Centers program.
Sipe staffs the program with district employees and with her high school students, who undergo state-provided child care training. “We spend zero district dollars on this program,” says Sipe—something she’s had to explain to skeptical local taxpayers.
“The programs look really expensive and challenging from the outside, but they’re not,” she says. “We’ve really had to work to educate people so that they can see this isn’t taking funds from the school day.”
Similar issues have faced the two after-school programs in Austin ISD, which together enroll about 7,500 of the district’s 84,000 students in activities ranging from tennis, nutrition and fitness to STEM, literacy and college readiness.
Although both programs are free and grant-funded—one with $4.2 million in federal money, one with $1.1 million in city money—questions still arise. “You’ll hear every now and then: ‘Well, do you want that after-school program, or do you want a science teacher?’” says John Shanks, who administers the Austin district’s federally funded program.
Relying on grants with finite time frames makes sustainability a major concern, says Shanks, who spends a lot of time finding the funding to keep programs going. At one of his schools, a much-loved program of project-based enrichment activities serving 120 students may lose funding next year when its grant expires, he says.
Where’s the proof?
Making a data-driven case for such programs can be complicated. Although research links after-school programs to improvements in grades, behavior and attendance, it can be difficult to isolate their impact in districts trying various interventions.
Over the past eight years, Vancouver Public Schools in Washington has greatly expanded the community-schools initiative, establishing 16 school-based resource centers where staff members partner with community organizations to help students’ families with food, health care and housing. The partnerships also provide after-school and summer school programs in such areas as sports, math, music and robotics.
The district has seen striking improvements in grades, ACT scores and graduation rates, but Superintendent Steve Webb acknowledges he can’t single out the impact of any one component.
“Folks want to say, ‘Well, if you just do out-of-school programming, that’ll help,’” he says. “Of course it’ll help, but we also know we have to invest in removing other barriers to student success in schools.”
Launch your own after-school programs
- Start at the finish line: “Focus on the results that are important to you,” says Martin Blank, director of the Coalition for Community Schools. “If you want students engaged, after-school is a way to keep them more excited. You want students to be healthy. After-school is a place where they can get fed. Think about your work in terms of results that will then help to support your own core mission.”
- Assess needs: Different communities want different things from their after-school programs. “You’ve heard that old adage, ‘Build it and they will come,’” says Lee Vallery, who administers a city-funded after-school program in Austin ISD. “It doesn’t apply. You need to find out what they want and then build it.”
- Partner with other community groups: Chances are the YMCA, the Boys & Girls Club or the public library is already running an after-school program and might welcome a collaboration with local schools.
- Consider sustainability: Make sure that once your program is up and running, it won’t suddenly disappear. “It isn’t just about your internal capacity to support out-of-school-time programming,” says Steve Webb, superintendent of Vancouver Public Schools in Washington. “You’ve also got to give partners time to build capacity to scale for sustainability. You need a long-range business plan.”
Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.