The Importance of High Quality After School Programs
By Mark Francis Wallace, Jr., Founder/CEO of RealPlay Rec
Member of the GCOST Collaborative
Today’s school children confront not only the inherent difficulty of growing up, they also face increasingly challenging environments, a lower tolerance for physical acting out, and the pervasive threat of violence. Poverty and income inequality create onerous emotional conditions for many children. As schools focus more intensively on preparing students with the academic skills necessary for success in the information age, attention is increasingly turning to the experiences of children and youth in their out-of-school time. After school, weekend, and summer programs offer many opportunities to complement and enhance the academic learning that takes place in school. These programs are promising strategies for engaging children and youth in a variety of positive social, recreational, and academic activities.
It is extremely important to keep our children and youth safe during afterschool hours. National studies consistently reveal key data points about relationships between limited after school supervision and the following: teen pregnancy rates, violence, school attendance, risk of obesity, and high school dropout rates. In the hours after the school bell rings, the prime time for juvenile crime begins. The peak hours for such crime are from 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm. It is during these hours when youth are most likely to become victims of crime, have automobile accidents, and/or participate in substance use (e.g., doing drugs, smoking cigarettes, and drinking alcohol).
A decade of research, evaluations, and reviews of literature provide powerful evidence that after school programs make a difference in the lives of youth who attend them. Afterschool programs improve the following: academic performance, positive social development, and healthy lifestyle choices. Many programs prevent risky behaviors. Participation in various structured out-of-school time activities has been shown to have the greatest impact and most positive effect on those youth who are most at-risk during the peak hours for crime. Research suggests that out-of-school time programs can benefit youth socially, emotionally and academically; however, those who participate more frequently and for longer periods of time are most likely to benefit.
After school programs basically create a sense of belonging and provide safety and supervision for their participants. In addition, they can provide academic support (e.g., helping with homework) and support for the development of social skills. Some of the most successful programs make learning fun by providing students with chances to experience new activities in arts, culture, life skills, and recreation. Research states that high quality after school programs can lead to positive outcomes for children and youth, as well as for families, communities, and schools.
Based on the evidence, high quality expanded learning programs do the following:
- Foster positive relationships between program participants and staff
- Build positive relationships among program participants
- Offer a blend of academic and development skill-building activities
- Promote high levels of engagement
- Maintain an orientation toward mastery of knowledge and skills
- Provide appropriate levels of structure as well as opportunities for autonomy and choice
(Eccles & Gootman, 2001).
Children from high-risk backgrounds have the most to gain from after-school programs in terms of educational opportunity; however, they have the least access to after-school programs. Research findings also indicate three factors that improve the educational benefits of after school programs. (1) A positive emotional climate devoid of harsh, punitive, controlling adult supervision should increase attendance. Programs cannot benefit children who do not attend or resist participation. (2) The changing needs and interests of older elementary school children need to be considered in programming. (3) Experts caution that the goal of improving children's school performance will not necessarily be attained by extending the school day with traditional classroom lessons and routines.
In conclusion, research confirms that providing quality after school programs for our most at-risk children can have an important impact on their lives. Quality programs engage children by giving them activity choices, engaging them in enrichment activities, and supporting socialization with peers. These programs will pay academic dividends that can lead to post high school success. Strong partnerships with schools, families, and the community are critical to sustaining positive outcomes from after school programs. Those of us who are members of the Georgetown County Out of School Time (GCOST) Collaborative realize the importance of quality after school programs for the children and youth in Georgetown County. Our vision is that every school-aged child in Georgetown County will have access to quality out-of-schooltime programs and services, promoting positive youth development and the prevention of at-risk behaviors.
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