While after-school programs were once primarily a free — or at least cheap — babysitting alternative for working parents, they now go a lot further than just parking kids in the cafeteria until dad punches out.
“After-school programs are particularly good at project-based learning, bridging what children learn in school with real life,” says An-Me Chung, program officer at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, which provides grants to community programs in Flint, Michigan.
The Benefits of After-Schooling
By complementing what’s happening during school hours, after-school programs improve both school attendance and grades. The Harvard Family Research Program also found that after-school programs decrease risky behavior.
“These programs accomplish a number of things,” Chung says. “Parents know their kids are safe after 3 p.m., programs are usually available five times per week, and they get to go to a museum, the library or the botanical garden.”
Not Just for Little Kids
Most programs cater to elementary students, although more now target middle and high school students, says Jennifer Rinehart, vice president of policy and research at the Afterschool Alliance, in Washington, D.C. The After School Matters program in Chicago, for example, provides apprenticeships to high school students in anything from painting to journalism to pairing kids with local chefs to learn about the restaurant industry.
Middle-school programs tend to be more educational. Higher Achievement, a program in Washington, D.C., helps 10 to 14 year olds bolster the academic skills they’ll need to excel in high school. New York’s After School Corp. elementary program makes reading fun for little kids by combining it with music.
Individual schools also have innovative programs. For example, Philadelphia’s Martin Luther King high school created a Going Green program with a local farmer, who teaches students how to grow crops. They do so on school grounds and at a greenhouse at the farm, and later sell that produce at green markets.
Footing the Bill
After-school programs are available to kids of all economic backgrounds, but different funding streams drive them. Twenty-First Century Community Centers, funded by the Department of Education, primarily pays for low-income programs. As communities move up the economic scale, parents pay more for the programs. While government funding supports some programs entirely, parents end up picking up 75 percent of the tab overall, Rinehart says.
Where to Start?
Parents looking for a program should start by asking at school — programs are often available that parents simply don’t know about. Make sure the program is age appropriate — young kids need exposure to groups of other kids; older children should be able to pursue their interests through the program on offer. If there isn’t a program, get creative: “Talk to the school and also to community groups who could help,” Rinehart suggests.
When you identify a program that suits your child’s needs, “Look for a program with a good ratio of staff to students,” Chung says. “Staff should be caring and competent and parents should have easy access to their kids.” Parents should then check out the program with their children. “If they’re not having fun they won’t want to go,” she warns.