After-School Programs: More than Safe Places for Children

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Updated: 3/28/2005 12:48 pm

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NEW YORK -- Working parents and teachers see after-school programs no longer as optional, but as an essential support for children as they grow and develop, according to a new national study of after-school programs, released today by the Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds. Nearly 80 percent of parents surveyed in the study said that after-school programs helped their children cope with behavioral problems and helped them obtain new skills to meet increased demands in school.

At a time when states and the federal government are pressing harder than ever for improved academic achievement by all children, a three-year study shows that after-school programs, particularly in low-income communities, are an effective and affordable way not only to keep children safe and out of trouble, but also to keep them engaged in school. The report concludes that children in school-based after-school programs benefit both academically and socially in programs that offer a diverse set of activities. The report findings are significant given the emerging debate over whether or not basic skills can be effectively taught only in programs that exclusively focus on academics or whether such skills can be taught in a variety of program activities such as art, sports, book and chess clubs.

Public/Private Ventures (P/PV), Philadelphia, PA, and the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., New York, NY produced the study, Multiple Choices After School: Findings From the Extended-Services Schools Initiative, which was commissioned by the Wallace Funds and was based on an evaluation of after-school programs supported by the Funds over the past decade.

"Given the challenges to children's lives and the complex set of skills needed for work in the 21st century, we need to prepare our nation's children to develop a broad range of core competencies from basic skills to leadership and team building skills," said Jean Baldwin Grossman, lead researcher of P/PV. "We found that these after-school programs, which are not strictly focused on developing basic skills, appeared to help participants develop multiple talents and abilities that they'll need for their future."

Extended Service Schools (ESS) are school-based programs that provide a variety of academic and enrichment activities for young people during non-school hours, from homework help to career awareness. The facilities typically operate before and after school, on weekends and over the summer months. Well-designed programs support families, too. "Parents with children in ESS programs said that their children's attitudes and behaviors in school changed and it kept their children out of trouble. As a result, their children's attendance improved. Parents were also able to manage their work schedules better, attend classes and get better jobs," Grossman said.

The ESS study involved four national models of after-school programs in 17 communities across the country. The models, Beacons, Bridges to Success, Community Schools and WEPIC (West Philadelphia Improvement Corps), differed in organizational structure and management, but all sought to promote positive youth development during out-of-school hours. Each ESS site was located in a school and operated by a community-based organization. All the programs focused on a mix of academics, cultural and recreation activities. The study sought to answer four key questions about after-school programs:

- Which children and youth come to after-school programs and why? Are the programs attracting the young people who could benefit most from participation?

- What do high-quality activities in after-school programs look like?

- What benefits do the youth and their families gain from participation?

- What is the cost to operate after-school programs, and how to finance them? The study showed that:

- Effective after-school programs positively affect student attitudes and behaviors in school and their ability to achieve learning goals. Eighty to 90 percent of ESS parents said their children obtained new skills and became more confident learners, while 85 percent of parents said their children enjoyed school more and as a result their school attendance improved.

- Effective after-school programs help students stay out of trouble. Over 70 percent of parents surveyed said the programs help their children stay out of trouble and learn to settle arguments without fighting. After-school participants were less likely to start drinking or skipping school.

- Effective after-school programs helped families. Three quarters of parents said the programs helped their child get along with family members better; 80 to 90 percent said they were less worried about their child's safety after school and learned to appreciate their child's talents; and half said their child's participation in after-school activities helped them to manage their jobs better, such as adjust work schedules and take advantage of classes or job training.

Practical lessons from the report, such as cost and program design, are highly relevant to local program managers providing after-school services and to state agencies that are administering 21st Century Community Learning Centers for the first time this year.

"This study can help communities create effective programs that have positive outcomes for children," said M. Christine DeVita, president of the Wallace Funds. "It demonstrates that there are ways to develop educational and developmental services out of school that can help children be successful in school and in life." The Funds supported nearly 60 such ESS programs in communities across the country to help transform underused public schools into neighborhood centers.

A complete copy of Multiple Choices After School: Findings From The Extended Service School Initiative is available online by visiting the Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds website www.wallacefunds.org, Public/Private Ventures www.ppv.org or MDRC website www.mdrc.org. Printed copies are available through P/PV.

The Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds seek to create opportunities for people to enrich themselves through better schools, enhanced community activities and participation in the arts.

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