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Answer Sheet
Posted at 07:30 AM ET, 12/15/2011

Why strong afterschool programs matter

This was written by Jodi Grant, executive director of the nonprofit Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit organization that works to ensure that all children have access to affordable, quality afterschool programs.

By Jodi Grant

The National School Boards Association recently released a report comparing the time U.S. students spend in school to the time spent in school in other countries — questioning the trendy notion that our schools would improve if we merely added time to the school day.  As executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, I’ve spent the past two years fighting efforts to divert federal support for already underfunded afterschool programs to instead provide a small number of failing schools with money to add an hour or two to their school day. This would not only add to the 15 million children currently unsupervised each afternoon, but could deny more than a million children the engaged learning and building blocks of healthy development provided by afterschool programs.  Like many experts, I’m fearful that simply adding more time to our least successful schools is not the right answer.

Students need more than a strong curriculum, good teachers, and time in the classroom to succeed. Afterschool programs have long known that they can embrace the hours between the time school closes and parents return from work to provide children, especially those who don’t have access to other activities, with exciting, engaging experiences that will help them learn academic, social and professional skills. The research is clear: children in quality afterschool programs are more likely to come to school and stay in school, more likely to hand in their work and get better grades. 

Yet afterschool falls off the radar in discussions of how to improve education. Why? 

Is it because afterschool programs go beyond the school — tapping community resources as partners to engage kids in learning?  Perhaps involving outsiders is intimidating because the things they do — providing meals, mentors, improving behavior, increasing self confidence, teaching leadership, team workforce skills, and making sure kids have access to daily physical activity — don’t fit neatly in school measures and systems.

  Or perhaps it is because afterschool educators, many of whom are certified teachers, provide learning in an environment that is free from the pressure of high-stakes testing and where students are pushed to explore and experiment outside their comfort zones.  It’s where they are taught that sometimes failure provides the best learning opportunity of all. 

Students in afterschool programs are less likely to join gangs, be victims or perpetrators of violence, become teen parents or engage in a host of inappropriate behaviors. Studies has shown that parents are less worried and more productive when students are in afterschool programs, saving companies hundreds of billions of dollars.

But today’s afterschool programs do so much more than keep kids safe.  Afterschool programs are at the cutting edge of combining education and youth development, creating programs that children want to attend — where hands-on, fun creative learning is the norm.  Parents choose to send their children to these programs.  Afterschool educators plan carefully to ensure the curriculum is exciting so that the students will come back. 

The best afterschool programs understand that schools alone can’t prepare our children for success and work closely with schools and teachers to produce activities that enhance and complement, but do not replicate, the school day. 

And afterschool programs engage a host of community-based organizations and volunteers from places like the Y, the United States Tennis Association, colleges and universities, museums, local businesses libraries, faith based groups and others.  These organizations leverage the best of communities to help students succeed.

Instead of adding more time to a traditional class, afterschool programs have the ability and flexibility to be creative and provide individualized learning.  A student might learn engineering principles by building a rollercoaster; pick up chemistry lessons by working in a forensic lab, or master fractions and decimals in a baseball game. Afterschool programs offer students access to tutors and mentors who can work with them individually or in small groups to focus on challenges and do better with school work and homework. Afterschool programs offer a variety of physical activities and nutritious meals that help stem the tide of obesity facing our children.

The research on afterschool supports the finding in the National School Board Association Report.  Time alone isn’t what matters; it is how that time is used that is essential.  For many middle and upper class children, the afterschool hours are filled with sports, creative play, dance, theater, tutors and other extracurricular activities.  Parents pay for these programs because they know they will help their children succeed in school and develop professional skills that will help them in the workforce.  Low-income children deserve access to the same types of programs and the mentors they provide. 

All that we have learned through successful afterschool programs is under threat by those who want to take away the programs that millions of children and families depend on.

Merely adding more time to existing tasks or classes won’t make schools or students more successful in school or more productive in life.  In fact, there is a real danger it could make them less productive because those who don’t respond well to the intense focus on teaching to the test will become more disengaged. 

  Yet, some in powerful positions want to ignore these dangers and redirect afterschool funds to efforts to add time to the school day, even if doing so devastates the only federally funded education program that thoughtfully provides additional learning time to at-risk students during the hours before school, after school and over the summer.  

If this happens it will be a terrible loss for students, working families, communities and, in the long term, our country.

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By  |  07:30 AM ET, 12/15/2011

 
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