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Assessing the Quality of Before- and After-School Programs

Extend the school day through high-quality before and after school programs

High-quality before- and after-school programs have the potential to enhance student engagement and improve academic achievement, by extending the school day in a fun, safe and relaxed environment. However, there are important factors to consider in selecting programs for a district, as well as determining the quality and effectiveness of existing before- and after-school programs. This web seminar, originally broadcast on January 22, 2014, featured the superintendent of the Union Elementary School District in San Jose, Calif., and a programming expert, who shared insights into the national standards for Quality School-Age Care and tools for assessing program quality in a district.

Director of Quality and Accreditation

High-quality before- and-after school programs have been proven to make a difference. In fact, several evaluations suggest that high-quality out-of-school-time programs can support academic achievement, even without an explicit focus on academic instruction. While this might seem counterintuitive, social and cognitive development are intertwined. Participating in active learning experiences in a safe environment with high expectations and supportive adults can contribute to increased engagement in learning and improvement in behavior and academic achievement. The results of a recent poll from the National AfterSchool Association (NAA) and Champions have revealed multiple reasons for superintendents to offer out-of-school-time programs. What this tells us is that we all want the same things for the right reasons: A safe place for kids to learn and be exposed to new activities, while meeting the needs of working parents.

There are many factors that impact the effectiveness of an out-of-school-time program:

  • Staff education and experience
  • Low turnover
  • Smaller group sizes
  • Instructional strategies
  • Clear goals

The NAA and the National Association for Elementary School Principals (NAESP) recently released a joint statement intended to lead to the development of a “new learning day.” It is an acknowledgement that the new learning day is not bound by place, time or conventional ways of acquiring knowledge and skills, extending beyond both normal school hours as well as the characteristics of traditional after-school programs. District leaders are realizing that a high quality before- and after-school program can support expanded learning in ways that do not simply replicate the school day, but rather enhance it.

These programs can provide greater accountability with homework, and more time to work on school projects. They also give students the opportunity to practice teamwork, leadership, mentoring and problem solving. Students can work independently, in large groups or small groups, and they can do it all through fun, hands-on activities. This can all be accomplished in addition to providing a safe place for children to be after school and giving peace of mind for parents. High-quality after-school programs also support the critical 4 Cs of 21st-century learning, which are communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. Creativity and innovation are becoming increasingly recognized as vitally important, as research has also identified the four Ps of creativity, which are the creative process, the creative person, the creative press and the creative product. There are a variety of ways to assess the quality of your after-school program. You can do a self-assessment or you can utilize an external organization.

Assessments can be completed monthly, quarterly or annually, depending on the tool you’re using and the amount of rigor your program has. Some self-assessment tools available are the National AfterSchool Quality Standards from the NAA, The Youth Quality Program Assessment from the Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality and individual state quality systems. Some external assessment organizations include the Council on Accreditation, Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality and the National Institute for Out of School Time. At Champions, we have designed our own quality observation tool. It includes items that are indicative of program and teacher quality and what’s right for children, as defined by our profession, our clients and by our families.

Union Elementary School District (San Jose, Calif.)

I know that I speak for superintendents everywhere when I say it’s imperative that the programs we offer our parents for before- and after-school childcare mirror the high standards we have for all of our programs in our districts. There are many qualities that make an after school program successful. The ones I believe are essential are safety (both physical and psychological), having an engaging learning environment, aligning to what’s happening in the classroom in terms of curriculum and activities, having activities that promote social skill building, and positive relationships with families and staff. It’s also important that after school environments are bright, colorful and engaging, and offer a wide variety of resources and activities to engage in. Our students need opportunities to explore things of interest to them and to have choices in the types of activities that are offered. As creativity is one of the four Cs of 21st-century learning, students need to be given opportunities to be creative during these before- andafter-school hours.

For me, it is also really important that before- and after-school staff communicate regularly with classroom teachers to align what the children are doing in class with the after-hours programs. Teachers and parents appreciate the support children are given during homework and projects and students benefit from extended learning opportunities. Providing collaborative group projects is also an essential element of 21st-century learning, and high-quality before- and after-school programs promote these activities on a regular basis. In addition to those essential elements, there are elements of high-quality programs that I think are exemplary. One of these exemplary elements include programs that have a really high degree of coordination with the school staff and administration, so that there is an essential partnership for the care of children on-site. This can be done by participating in school and district events. I have been pleased that Champions, who is one our providers, has taken such an active role in supporting our schools in things like walk-a-thons, our annual film festival and this year, our district’s 150th birthday celebration. It is so great for our families to see the partnership we have together. Our teachers, parents and our providers are working in harmony to support all of these things that are important.

As discussed previously, offering a wide variety of activities for students to explore and engage in is a hallmark of an exemplary program. Last but certainly not least is the importance of having enthusiastic staff. Nothing is more welcoming and engaging than having a staff member who loves working with children and wants to do everything possible to provide enriching learning opportunities for them. As we look ahead to the future, what will be the hallmarks of exemplary programs in our rapidly changing educational and social environment? In my opinion, it will be providing students with anytime learning by having computer and internet access before and after school. Also, we need to coordinate curriculum projects and activities as schools transition to the Common Core, and be more focused on project-based real-world application of their learning.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to