After-School Programs Are More Popular, and Necessary, Than Ever

More working parents mean more opportunities for kids to learn in a fun environment—that is, if Mom and Dad can afford it.

After-school cooking program in Miami. (Photo: The Real Food Academy/Facebook)

Oct 28, 2014· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s a working parent’s headache: What to do with children when the school bell rings at 3 p.m. but the workday isn’t over yet? The antidote—after-school sessions, in which kids get tutoring, learn a sport, participate in educational programs, or just have fun in a safe environment—has exploded in popularity over the last decade, according to a new report.

However, the Afterschool Alliance report, America After 3 PM, also shows that one in five school-age children is left “alone and unsupervised” after classes end. That problem has gone unaddressed, particularly with respect to low-income families, even though there’s strong bipartisan, grassroots support for public funding of after-school programs, according to the report.

“In fact,” the organization’s authors write, “for every child in an afterschool program, approximately two more children would be enrolled if a program were available to them.” According to the report, a lack of funding for starting or expanding existing programs combined with increased demand is the main issue.

“The demand has increased by a lot,” says Jodi Grant, executive director of Afterschool Alliance. “There’s an increasing awareness that after-school programs are doing more than just keeping kids safe.”

Growth in after-school programs stems in part from the rise in working mothers over the past generation; in 2013, nearly 60 percent of two-parent households had both parents in the workforce. Yet while society clearly has changed, the school day hasn’t. For most children the school doors open in the early morning and close midafternoon. Studies also show kids are most likely to become involved in crime or experiment with drugs, alcohol, or sex between the hours of 3 and 6 p.m.

Shortly after taking office this year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he’d seek increased state funding for after-school programs, describing them as a way to “lift all boats in the school system.” Along with providing a safe environment for kids, the mayor said, activities that let kids learn in a fun, less stressful environment can help them catch up with their peers in China and India without making them spend more time in the classroom.

“This is a way to achieve some of the virtues of longer school days in a much more attainable fashion,” de Blasio told The Wall Street Journal, noting that many programs feature tutoring and educational activities. “Parents can build their schedules around that, knowing the kids are safe, knowing they are expanding upon their education. We are convinced this will lead to much stronger educational outcomes.”

There’s evidence that a growing number of parents agree. According to the Afterschool Alliance report, both the percentage and the total number of child participants has grown exponentially in the past decade. This year, just over 10 million children, or about 18 percent of the school-age population, have been involved in after-school programs; in 2003, the total number of kid participants was about 6.5 million, or around 11 percent.

Yet there are barriers, especially for low-income families, which tend to be African American and Hispanic. Fifty-six percent of poor and working-class families reported that cost was a factor in their decision not to enroll their child in an after-school program. Well over half of both African American and Latino low-income families questioned in the survey also cited the lack of a safe way to get their child to and from a program.

“The hypothesis I would make is we desperately need more public investment” in after-school programs, Grant says.

She says California—known as a leader in many educational trends and a top state for after-school programs in the Afterschool Alliance’s survey—is taking that approach.

“I was in L.A. recently with the head of the Los Angeles Unified School District [former superintendent John Deasy],” she says. “He was talking about how every elementary and middle school in underserved communities had an after-school program, and he was getting state and federal funding” to make it happen.

Yet in tight economic times, too many governments—and overworked parents—believe post-school activities are luxuries, not necessities, a mind-set Grant would like to change.

“That’s exactly our challenge: People think it’s an extra. It’s not,” Grant says, noting that research shows most successful adults were influenced by after-school activities. Besides providing enrichment and inspiration, they provide “that [mentoring] relationship with an adult. It’s being part of a group” and learning how to interact with peers.