Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Investing in Children's After-School Hours

Each weekday from September to June, at roughly 3:00 in the afternoon, school bells across the land ring, signaling the end of classes for the day. The sound that follows in many classrooms is familiar to anyone who's been in a classroom: books snapping shut, chair legs screeching on floors, and children moving on to their next stop. Just what that next stop is varies from community to community, family to family, and child to child. Some go off to structured activities with adult supervision; some go home to a waiting adult; some go home and are unsupervised; and some have no real option but to hang out in places where trouble is especially likely to find them.

In that first category are about 8.4 million children who are lucky enough to have afterschool programs that keep them safe and inspire them to learn, and that also help their working parents continue to work productively, secure in the knowledge that their kids are under the watchful eye of caring professionals. Unfortunately, a much larger group of children -- 15.1 million -- are left alone -- no parents, no afterschool program, no adult supervision.

The policy challenge those numbers frame for us is obvious: We need to shrink the number of children left on their own in the often-perilous afterschool hours, and we need to invest in growing the number of children who have enriching afterschool options available to them. Unfortunately, we seem to be heading in the wrong direction.

That's the inescapable conclusion from new research conducted for the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education campaign by a team of George Washington University researchers. The report focuses on state funding for programs supporting students who face economic disadvantages, with a particular eye on the effect of the recession on those programs and the children they serve.

Much of the dialogue about such programs these days focuses on the federal level and the ongoing budget debates that have dominated our politics for the past few years. But many states have been fighting budget battles of their own, and the report concludes that one result of those losing battles is that the overall gap between support services and student needs in those states has widened.

That's particularly true in the case of afterschool and summer learning programs, the researchers conclude. (The two programs are often run by the same entities, serving similar groups of students.) After taking a close look at funding levels in four states -- Maryland, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia -- they calculated that states had cut afterschool and summer program funding by an average of 16 percent per pupil.

Of course, afterschool programs aren't solely dependent on state dollars. But their other funding sources are no more ample. Fees paid by parents account for the lion's share of afterschool program funding, but high unemployment and recession-suppressed wages make that harder than ever for many families to swing. Support from the business and philanthropic communities are a challenge, as well; both have taken hits from the recession and have fewer dollars to devote to charitable causes, no matter how valuable. And federal support, chiefly from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative, has been cut as a result of the budget wars in Washington. Worse, an epic post-election budget battle looms, as Congress tries to come to grips with the $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts now scheduled to take effect in January -- again as a result of past budget agreements. A report released this week by the Afterschool Alliance also echoes the finding that afterschool and summer learning program budgets are shrinking, leaving programs struggling to meet the needs of children and families in their communities.

Those who see afterschool programs as expendable budget items likely have never set foot in one. Walk into an afterschool program, and you'll see kids receiving homework help and special tutoring; getting exercise; learning about science, technology and engineering; going on field trips that expand their love of music and the arts; or building robots or cars or computers. And they do these things under the supervision of afterschool providers and with the help of volunteers from community organizations or local businesses

It's exactly that sort of community engagement and that mix of fun and learning that makes these programs so successful. Great afterschool programs don't staple another couple of hours of class time onto the school day; they focus on the kinds of experiential learning activities that engage young people in their own education, connect lessons to the real world, and help students learn more during the regular school day. A number of studies show reading and mathematics gains among afterschool students, as well as behavior and attendance improvements.

For some reason, too many budget-writers seem to see afterschool and summer learning programs as add-ons, something that's nice to have when we can afford them, but not something we can pay for when times are tight. They're exactly wrong. Key to stemming the summer learning loss that drags down academic achievement among low-income students, and thus wastes precious school dollars, these programs are a terrific investment, particularly when economic times are tough.

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