By Mary Ellen Flannery
When the last bell rings at Van Buren Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the real “work” begins – that is, the after-school apprenticeships in fields as far-ranging as Mexican dance and community action.
This is not school, plus two hours. It’s not the same books, desks and assignments but more of them. Rather it’s an after-school program that builds creative, community-based projects for kids in high-poverty communities. And it really gets them excited about school. (The proof? School attendance by participants is way up.)
“We try to do what’s difficult to do in the traditional school day, but we very closely collaborate with our partner teachers and schools to support what’s happening academically in the school day,” says Michael Kubiak, director of evaluation at Citizen Schools, the parent organization of the Van Buren program.
What can a good after-school program do? Copious research compiled by the Afterschool Alliance shows that quality programs improve student achievement. These kids are more likely to go to school, be engaged in their regular lessons, and earn better test scores and grades. Take, for example, Citizen Schools where average graduation rates are about 20 percent higher for participants than similar peers.
In New Hampshire, programs also were linked to better behavior during regular school hours; in Los Angeles, kids voiced greater college aspirations. Other studies have shown that kids in after-school programs make healthier choices: they’re less likely to get into fights, have babies, use drugs, commit crimes, or even gain unhealthy amounts of weight. And, most importantly, studies show that kids at the greatest risk show the greatest gains after participation.
They’re not cheap, of course. After-school programs cost money, at least, the good ones do — the ones that hire quality instructors and work closely with school faculty to align their goals, the ones that take innovative approaches to instruction. But they also save money: lots of money. In an analysis by the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College, researchers found that “E]ach dollar invested in an at-risk child brings a return of $8.92 to $12.90.”
After-school programs also are increasingly providing the kind of enriched academic content – especially in arts, music, foreign language and civics education — that has been cut by shrinking budgets or shoved aside so that teachers can spend more time preparing for high-stakes tests. Especially in high-poverty, high-minority communities, where the pressure to meet Adequate Yearly Progress is fierce, teachers report that the No Child Left Behind law has forced them to abandon anything but reading and math.
NEA believes all students, not just the privileged, should have access to a full curriculum, including the arts, foreign language, and physical education, provided by certified teachers during the school day. After-school programs can be no substitute – although good ones may provide new opportunities for learning through a variety of experiences.
At Citizen Schools, for example, citizen volunteers with specific skills teach the “apprenticeships.” At Van Buren, they have included attorneys who have led students through “mock trials,” and recently, a local neighborhood activist who helped kids beautify their community, said Velina Chavez-Lopez, the campus director. Meanwhile, the program also offers homework help, as well as math and science competitions and games, typically supervised by AmeriCorps volunteers.
In Lincoln, Nebraska, at Arnold Elementary, Dayna Krannawitter runs a before- and after-school “Community Learning Center,” operated in conjunction with the city’s public housing authority, that serves about 230 kids a week – all of them living in poverty. She also makes a point of working very closely with teachers and, in fact, hires many of them for her program. “Our goals happen to be in math, reading and writing, but of course we wrap a real enrichment part around it so it doesn’t feel like just more school,” Krannawitter said.
“You’ll see a lot of science, math and reading – but it’s not going to feel like that. It’ll be fun and high-energy,” she said. Clubs like hip-hop or reading or “student military life,” all help to support school improvement goals. (Yes, student military life! This particular community is near a National Guard base and many students have parents in the military. One of their recent activities was assembling packages to send to overseas troops. Another was watching an invited military guest assemble his backpack and explain why each provision or piece of equipment would be included.)
“We’re really so much more than a before- or after-school program – we’re really creating community schools,” said Krannawitter – which, of course, is exactly the kind of collaborative approach endorsed by NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign.
They’re also, as the research shows, creating better community members. At Citizen Schools, in addition to tracking graduation rates and grades, program managers look at their students’ growing ability to speak confidently and lead their peers. “We also closely measure their own perception of self-efficacy, whether they can advocate for themselves and strive to educational excellence,” Kubiak said – and increasingly, the answer is yes.