The opportunity for school administrators to transform the quality of education that students receive today in public schools may be as close as the growing focus on afterschool programs.

AASA’s magazine, The School Administrator, thoroughly developed the case for afterschool programs in its May 2005 issue. Well-structured afterschool programs effectively expand learning time for students, provide opportunities for collaboration with the broader community, and constructively fill those hours that, at best, are spent idly and, at worst, entice unsupervised youngsters into delinquent or high-risk activities.

While the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind legislation primarily promotes the academic/ tutoring aspect of the afterschool picture, other organizations and individuals have taken a more expansive view of the possibilities, suggesting that afterschool programs not only bolster the academic agenda but also provide — within a structure that differs from the regular school day — time for social, emotional and physical skill building that students must have to achieve life success.

This broadening of the mission, much different than just expanding the course offerings, was the subject of comments by Karen Pittman of The Forum for Youth Investment in a Youth Today column. She explained how a group of hand-picked educators, practitioners and policy experts, attending a conference at the behest of the U.S. Department of Education, were attempting to identify outcome indicators for improved achievement that could be used to evaluate afterschool programs.

“Our brainstorming session netted more than 50 outcome indicators, ranging from reduced violent episodes to increased enthusiasm about learning,” she wrote. “Some were specifically about school, such as attendance. Others focused on nonacademic goals, such as interacting with youth from other backgrounds.”

“The connections became clear," Pittman continues. “Academic achievement is dependent on engagement, motivation, behavior and attendance. All of these are dependent on youth feeling safe and supported and are reflected in literature on academic achievement, and achievement in general."

“We decided that afterschool programs should first define their full set of goals in each outcome area and then agree to be measured against academic indicators — but only after they create program activities connected to those goals. . . . The tension between academics and youth development did not materialize. The groups affirmed the notion that both goals are equally attainable. Former U.S. Department of Education Sec. Roderick Paige, C.S. Mott Foundation President Bill White and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced our progress in a press conference immediately following the summit," Pittman said.

Policy analyst Richard Rothstein, in his 2004 book Class and Schools, sees afterschool programs as a way to balance the inequity that exists between poor and middle class students, not only in terms of academic achievement, but also in the enhancement of critical personal skills. When middle class students leave school in the afternoon, he points out, they have a host of places to go, such as Girl and Boy Scouts, religious groups, Little League and classes in art, music and dance. Less-advantaged students are more likely to watch television or play informally. Thus they miss out on the structured activities that help students learn social responsibility, improve academic proficiency and develop the organizational skills and discipline that make them more effective.

The National Institute on Out of School Time (NIOST) notes that older students don’t participate in afterschool activities as much as younger children. They identify several possible reasons for this: (1) it is more difficult to attract high school students to programs; (2) high school students are less likely to want to stay in the school building; (3) high school students have busier schedules (i.e., family, sibling or home responsibilities); (4) high school students are less likely to attend a program several days a week; (5) high school students often need to work to earn money and contribute to family income; and (6) high school students are more independent and mobile, so they vote with their feet. (Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, 2003)

Another perspective is more holistic and addresses studies in child development and education that link afterschool attendance to better grades, peer relations, academic equity, emotional adjustment and conflict resolution skills (overall resiliency). Thus, constructive use of out-of-school time is a protective factor for youth has been associated with: (1) academic achievement (higher grades and grade point average), recovery from low academic performance, and an interest in furthering their education; (2) a stronger self-image; (3) positive social development; (4) reductions in risk-taking behavior; and (5) better school behavior and fewer absences.

In short, when youth participate in high quality afterschool programs, they are likely to benefit in a myriad of ways. They receive personal attention from caring adults, explore new interests, receive academic support, develop a sense of belonging to a group, develop new friendships with their peers, take on challenging leadership roles and build a sense of self-esteem independent of their academic talent.

It is not surprising that afterschool programs are an easy sell for parents and the community.

  • The parents of more than 15 million youngsters say that their children will participate in an afterschool program if one is available in their community. (Afterschool Alliance Poll, 2004)
  • Nearly 90 percent of Americans support funding for quality afterschool programs in lowincome neighborhoods as an important aspect of welfare reform programs. (David and Lucile Packard Foundation Poll, Public Views on Welfare Reform and Children in the Current Economy, February 2002)

School leaders, of course, are equally interested in valid research and evaluations of afterschool models before committing scarce resources to them.

The research and literature is growing, although, as Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) researchers point out in a 2003 report, many of the studies of outcomes done since the 1980s are not rigorous in their methodology and have issues such as the inherent difficulty in finding true control groups of children and the common failure to describe treatments and dosages. Many experts warn that afterschool programs should not be pressured into over-promising results they do not have the resources to deliver. As Robert Halpern, chair of the Research Council of the Erickson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development, says in his 2002 study of afterschool programs:

Not infrequently, one or another child-rearing institution has taken on a role out of a conviction that others were not fulfilling their responsibilities. Afterschool programs, like other institutions, have periodically felt themselves to be a support of first and last resort. Afterschool programs can work as a developmental resource and support for children only to the extent that they are allowed to work from a modest and reasonable story line. And they will only be able to fulfill some of their potential if they themselves are adequately nurtured, supported and protected.

While research and anecdotal evidence exist to suggest that afterschool programs are a positive factor in student achievement, some countervailing reports, most notably the controversial Mathematica evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC), reached a number of negative conclusions about afterschool students’ academic achievement and behavior.

According to the Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit public awareness and advocacy organization working to ensure that all children and youth have access to afterschool programs by 2010, the methodology used in the Mathematica study was highly suspect . . . as are the findings. While the study found that African American and Hispanic students, as well as girls participating in 21st CCLC's afterschool programs, showed academic gains, in general the results focused on negative outcomes, prompting the Bush Administration to cut FY04 funding from $1 billion to $600 million.

Other critics of the study’s methodology note that the findings are based on just one year of data, collected very early in the life of the original 21st CCLC initiative; the study evaluated a very small number of grantees; and the study failed to be representative of the afterschool population.

The rollout of a new evaluation system in 2005 should help to put to rest some of the criticism by ensuring that States have data on the performance of each of their grantees, according to Robert Stonehill, 21st CCLC director. In addition, the National Partnership for Quality Afterschool Learning, which is funded by the Department through a contract with the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, is identifying promising and exemplary programs, activities and materials that can be adopted by state and local providers to provide rich academic content in afterschool programs that differ from the regular school day but are still standards based.