Why We Can't Afford to Cut Afterschool Programs

afterschool
President Barack Obama poses with children during a visit to a Boys and Girls Club in Northeast Washington. Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Whenever the subject of school reform is introduced, predictable buzzwords are sure to follow: charter schools, standards, teacher quality, extended learning time, class size, and so on. But rarely does anyone pipe up with “afterschool programs.” These programs tend to be seen as “add-ons” or “extras,” useful for keeping children out of trouble, nice to have when there’s extra room in the budget, but the first to go when there isn’t.

It’s an understandable sentiment in these trying economic times when desperate school districts are resorting to what’s becoming a frightening trend: closing down entire schools. 

Still, this country is dotted with amazing afterschool programs that work miracles in the lives of the students they serve. These programs are remarkable not only for the results they achieve, but for teaching us about what’s lacking in our regular public schools.

Afterschool programs vary widely in terms of size, duration, mission, budget, quality, and outcomes. The most successful have a demonstrably positive and profound impact on children, especially those living in some of our  nation’s neediest communities.

Community of Unity (CofU) is a stand-out New York City nonprofit whose mission is to help young people discover their unique purpose and potential. CofU's Youth Empowerment Leadership Community (YELC) curriculum focuses on developing seven essential life skills—self-awareness, self-esteem, sense of humor, empathy, integrity, responsibility, and focus—that empower youth to make positive choices and transform their lives. Ninety percent of participants graduate high school on time and attend college.

Here's a testimonial from YELC participant Jean Carlos Artiles:

This program has been, and will always be, one of the most meaningful aspects of my life. This group has shaped my character as a man. I’ve learned so much, some about others, but mostly about myself. I’ve gotten to know “me” in a deeper sense. I was able to face the things I unconsciously put up that prevented me from using 100% of my potential towards becoming the best me I can be.

YELC provides a kind of individualized character education and life skill development that public schools too often neglect. This has been especially true during the past decade. Pursuing the goals of No Child Left Behind, schools have been seen to narrow curriculum and prepare students for standardized math and reading tests at the expense of richer educational experiences.

A few extra hours per week in a quality afterschool program can make an amazing difference in the life of a child. Whether focused on sports, science, cooking, the arts, or even homework help and tutoring, the power of quality afterschool programs cannot be overstated.

Several posts throughout the coming weeks will be devoted to outstanding afterschool programs. Unfortunately, many of them are barely managing to keep their heads above water in our ongoing financial crisis. These programs fill an important gap that public schools leave open, creating powerful learning opportunities for students while helping them overcome obstacles. These afterschool programs deserve our attention, and wherever possible, our full support.

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