Supporting After-School Programs
How important are after-school programs? Consider these statistics:
- The after school hours are the peak time for juvenile crime, and experimentation with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and sex. (Source: Bureau, Urban Institute Estimate, 2000, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, 2002.)
- The parents of more than 28 million school-age children work outside the home and as many as 15 million "latchkey children" go to an empty house on any given afternoon. (Source: U.S. Department of Labor; U.S. Census Bureau, Urban Institute Estimate.)
- Teens who do not participate in after school programs are nearly three times more likely to skip classes or use marijuana or other drugs. They are also more likely to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes and engage in sexual activity. (YMCA of the USA, March 2001.)
Cynthia Gessling, a senior director with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, says the hours between 3 and 7 on school days are often referred by law enforcement officers as the "danger zone" and are the prime time for violent juvenile crime, the period during which kids are most likely to become the victims of violent crime or be involved in accidents. She believes good after school programs can help alleviate this problem.
"They have the power to reduce crime, increase safety, bring neighbors together, and youth who participate in after school programs show an increased interest in school, have higher GPAs and express greater hope for the future," Gessling says.
Bela P. Shah is the senior program associate for the After-school Initiatives, Institute for Youth, Education and Families, for the National League of Cities. It is her job to work exclusively on promoting after-school programs within cities and towns throughout the United States. It is work she deems vitally important.
"Most of the violence and crime to and by youth occur during this time period after school because a high percentage of children and youth are unsupervised during this time," Shah says. "Young people are subject to peer pressure to perform risky behaviors when they are not in a supervised engaging experience. More than 14 million school-age children (25 percent) across the country are on their own after school. Among them are more than 40,000 kindergarteners. With parents of more than 28 million school-age children working outside the home, children today do not have the luxury of going home at 3 p.m. to a parent or caregiver."
What an After-school Program Can Do
"A good after-school program provides many positive experiences for a young person," Shah says. "First, it provides a safe, structured or semi-unstructured environment with caring adult supervision. With positive adult role models who know and care for the children as program staff, participants are exposed to a range of activities that help to develop their interests and talents. Programs keep kids safe until their parents or a guardian can pick them up after school."
According to Shah, high-quality after-school programs also provide an active and/or creative outlet for youth. Since after-school programs are typically more unstructured than the regular school day, young people can continue learning while releasing pent-up energy in positive ways. Through sports, performing or creative arts, community service or leadership opportunities, young people find their voice to express themselves.
"Additionally, some after-school programs have a specific violence prevention or gang prevention focus where local police teach kids how to be safe, how to defend themselves and how to say no," Shah says.
What to Look For
High-quality after-school programs will have a range of activities for young people to choose from. There will be an academic component where children can do homework and receive tutoring assistance from teachers or older youth. There will also be choices of sports and recreation/fitness activities, as well as arts enrichment.
"The activities and learning should be engaging and motivating for the children," Shah says. "There should be open communication between after-school program staff and the school day teachers/administration to ensure that what's happening after school is aligned and supportive of the school day curriculum in a more creative and engaging way."
According to Shah, recent research shows that there are 5 characteristics of high-performing after-school programs:
- They offer opportunities for skill building and mastery.
- They offer intentional relationship building.
- There is a strong, experienced leader/manager, supported by a trained and supervised staff.
- They have the administrative, fiscal and professional-development support of the sponsoring organization.
"Parents should be looking for a range of choices for their child to select from," Shah says. "They should look for a low staff to student ratio. They should look at participation rates and see if children are interested in the program offerings. And they should definitely pay attention to the staff and the program director to determine if they can manage well and whether the children have developed a rapport with them. Working parents often don't have time to take their children to museums, libraries and other learning-based fun field trips. Many times after-school programs can provide opportunities for children to take advantage of community institutions and participate in community service projects."
Jennifer Key from Birmingham, Ala., has had her son in an after-school program for over a year and says that he loves it. "He no longer feels left out because he has not been enrolled in an after school sport," Key says. "My son is not the athletic sort and so I was reluctant to sign him up for all the sports other children are involved in. It gave him an extracurricular activity that suited him."
No matter what your reason for sending your child to an after-school program, you will be able to find one to fit your needs and the needs of your child. By supporting after-school programs, we can make the 3 to 7 "danger zone" a safety zone.