Youth thrive and achieve in programs that foster caring child/adult relationships. These programs allow youth to form bonds with adults they grow to trust and staff who encourage them to succeed. When staff have long-term relationships with after-school program participants, they are able to identify changes in the child’s behavior that signal a need for intervention.
A safe and secure environment that supports a child’s social and emotional development could also have a significant impact on improving a child’s academic performance. After-school programs need diverse offerings to provide the maximum number of “hooks” to draw youth. More classroom-style instruction of the same type that children get in their day-school program is not always better and needs to be filled with creative and engaging curriculum delivered by experienced, qualified, and caring staff.
Several overarching themes emerged:
1) The demand for services: There is an enormous demand for out-of-school-time programs, especially for middle school students who are particularly at risk without structured out-of school time opportunities.
2) Out-of-school-time programs are the new neighborhoods: Given demographic and residential housing patterns, out-of-school-time programs have become the new “neighborhoods” and as such, are indispensable aspects of healthy communities.
3) Staffing challenges: Out-of-school-time programs struggle with three powerful staffing issues: the general labor shortage, a longstanding over-reliance on part-time staff, and high turnover.
4) Relationship between social-emotional development and academic success: Programs that offer a safe and welcoming environment, that foster the social-emotional development of children, and that offer children and youth a range of engaging structured activity can also have a positive impact on academic performance.
5) Funders’ narrow priorities: As funders have become increasingly targeted and prescriptive in their funding priorities (usually with an emphasis on activities explicitly aimed at academic support and career development), they can tend to lose sight of other critical aspects of effective programs, i.e., social-emotional development and the establishment of positive relationships between youth and adults.
6) The challenge of collaboration: There is a great need and desire on the part of out-of school-time program providers to develop collaborations, especially with their local school systems, and to build a network of similar programs to share resources and best practices. However, there are a number of barriers to these types of collaboration, especially the lack of staff time for the work required to build these organizational relationships.
Middle school students need to be involved in out-of-school-time programs and that if these children remain “unaffiliated,” they are at real risk. Transportation is crucial to reaching and engaging middle school students. While on-site after-school programs are desirable for middle school youth, for these programs to be effective there must be transportation to take the children home. When schools make it a priority to provide and coordinate transportation, programs are very successful in reaching youth. For example, one school dismissed their middle school students a few minutes early so that a school bus could take them to the nearby youth center and return without disrupting the bus schedule for the other children. Programs can benefit from being part of a local network of providers that can establish a “transportation loop” for a number of programs.
As referenced above, youth benefit when programs can be part of a local system of services and joint programmatic activities. Effective program collaboration depends upon strong personal relationships among staff and teachers.
Out-of-school-time programs are the new “neighborhoods” for youth. They have taken the place of the nearby houses and yards where children used to be able to play safely after school. Today, even children with a mother or father at home in the afternoon rarely participate in unstructured play with neighboring children. Moreover, it is an accepted fact that youth left unsupervised or without some sort of structured program option are at-risk of being drawn into negative behaviors.
The increased emphasis on academics makes it difficult to find the program time and funding for the types of recreational and other activities that help youth develop socially and emotionally.
Schools believe they should collaborate with after-school programs, but they often do not see after-school programming as a priority. There are a number of barriers to collaboration with the schools. These include:
1) Teachers are not supportive of having youth and other staff in their classrooms after hours.
2) The growing emphasis on testing and academic performance is beginning to overwhelm school staff and is becoming the predominant priority for school faculty and administration. This makes schools less willing than ever to collaborate on after-school programs, which they tend to see as unrelated to academics.
3) Severe fiscal constraints in the schools have made it increasingly difficult to collaborate.
Public school teachers hired to teach in these programs after hours must realize that students need different instructional strategies if these types of “extended day” programs are to succeed. Students do not learn effectively if they must focus solely on rigorous academics for a full extended day. This makes collaboration with after-school programs even more important.
There are three core staffing issues that impact the out-of-school-time field:
1) there is a general labor shortage;
2) programs hire most staff as part-time workers; and
3) there is high staff turnover. After-school program staff are primarily part-time paraprofessionals. This is even true for public schools where the school will employ a paraprofessional . The result is that part-time staff stay on the job only until they can find a full-time position with benefits, thereby contributing to high turnover.
As stated several times, staff shortages and turnover are the major challenges that programs face. Staff turnover inhibits child/adult bonding. Good programs are all about good people and good relationships. Youth thrive when they feel safe and can develop relationships with caring adults. When staff leave, youth who have become attached to them go through a “grieving” process.
While part-time employees need the most training and support, they get the least. Since most part-time employees have more than one job, even if organizations offer staff development opportunities, these individuals do not have the time to participate. Staffing constraints also hinder collaboration. Successful collaborations require staff time for planning and coordination, which is difficult for all programs to find. However, it is especially hard for small programs that lack the administrative staff to become involved in collaborations.
While programs can sometimes access school buses, for this arrangement to work consistently, school departments will need to make a serious commitment to providing transportation for out-of-school-time programs on a consistent basis.
There are a number of children with special needs mainstreamed into the school day program, but these children are difficult to serve in after-school programs. Even ADHD children, the one group that because of medication is most easily mainstreamed into after school programs, present a challenge. Medication policies for these children are increasingly complicated, thereby making them more difficult to serve. Sadly, many of these children wind up at home alone after-school, where they must administer their own medication.
Many funders are interested in supporting programs that focus on career preparation and academic support. While those types of activities are important, it is becoming disproportionately hard to find money to support programming that builds youth self-esteem and other issues related to youth social and emotional development. This is true even when it is widely accepted that youth need help in creating positive relationships with adults and their peer groups. It is difficult to find funding for program support such as transportation, direct service staff, youth outreach, or building organizational collaborations. It is also difficult to raise money to integrate special needs students into out-of-school-time programs; schools have little if any after-school activities for these students and there appears to be little funder interest in developing these services.
Securing funds for activities that support the social and emotional development of youth is challenging because the service outcomes are difficult to measure.
Funding for out-of-school-time programs is becoming increasingly narrow and prescriptive, especially the focus on academic support and/or remediation for youth in light of the new emphasis on testing and standards. This narrowing of funding priorities as counterproductive, especially for middle school programs that need to be very diverse, creative and multi-faceted to appeal to as many youth as possible.
These recommendations are very practical and reaffirm the priorities that had been discussed:
- Hire a full-time staff person to facilitate collaboration and coordination with other providers and the community at large;
- Develop and/or expand programs to serve middle school youth;
- Increase outreach to “unaffiliated” older youth;
- Create more homework labs as part of a comprehensive after-school program. Many parents do not have the education background to be able to help their children. In addition, because schools now pack a lot of learning into homework, even more well educated parents are finding that helping with homework can be very stressful;
- Expand the use of volunteers to staff programs and homework labs by providing support and training for them;
- Seek ways to increase collaboration and integration with the schools that can maximize the effective use of facilities and other resources;
- Work to increase parent involvement and family support services;
- Provide start-up funds to implement programs in small communities;
- Develop services for youth with special needs;
- Develop and implement more in- and out-of-school-time program collaborations.