After-school activities empower kids

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In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama called for preschool programs for every 4-year-old — an idea that 30 states are funding. Providing early education for youngsters who haven’t started school is an idea whose time has come. So is supporting after-school programs for elementary school students.

Participating in after-school activities — consistently, day in and day out — improves student achievement for kids from low-income families. In fact, taking part in these programs can help close the gap in math achievement between low-income and high-income children.

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These are among the findings of a new, large-scale national study that I conducted with colleagues from the University of California-Irvine School of Education.

The good news includes overall improvements in math and academic achievement, reductions in school absences and improvements in behavioral outcomes when students participated in after-school activities. 

The bad news: lack of participation in an after-school program is linked to behavior problems, increased school-day absences and a lower grade-point average.

These findings reaffirm what educators have long known: High-quality after-school programs powered by school-community partnerships offer young people a variety of hands-on, engaging learning activities that build on the school day. That’s because after-school and summer programs offer young people opportunities to develop skills and knowledge.

To reap the full benefits of after-school programs, three factors are essential. First, children must participate regularly. Second, children should be able to pursue their passions, whether they are interested in sports, arts, science or engineering. Third, the after-school program needs supportive and caring staff. When these conditions are in place, there are improvements in the school-related metrics as well as the development of 21st century skills, particularly work habits, persistence and innovation.

Many policymakers recognize the importance of after-school programs to students and their communities. In addition to providing children and youth with value enrichment and workforce experiences, they also offer young people a safe place to go after school, thereby reducing instances of youth violence.

As former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has explained: “There is a large and growing body of evidence showing that comprehensive after-school programs help inspire kids to learn and help working families. They also give children a safe place to be in the afternoon hours when schools are out and parents are still at work. They put that time to good use, helping kids with their homework; teaching them teamwork; engaging them in community service; pairing them with mentors; giving them the chance to get — and stay — physically fit.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently credited after-school and summer programs with contributing to the decline in area murder rates. In December, Emanuel said that, with a record 20,000 young people involved in a jobs program: “Not one of those kids was affected by gun violence this summer, and I don’t believe for a minute that if they didn’t have jobs they would be safe.”

Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed universal pre-kindergarten and the expansion of after-school programming through middle school. He declared: “The extended learning time in after-school programs helps our students make positive gains in their academic performance, benefit from diverse programs that enrich learning, improve communication skills with adults, decrease behavioral problems, and it offers young people alternatives to trouble on the streets.”

With research revealing that high-quality early learning and after-school programs provide positive results in youth outcomes up until high school, the nation needs more investments in these proven initiatives at the local, state and federal levels.

In a hopeful development, Congress recently restored nearly $60 million in federal funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. Supporting innovative programming, this program is the only federal funding source dedicated exclusively to after-school programs. 

As policymakers start to consider a federal budget for fiscal 2015, reevaluation of the waivers to key provisions in No Child Left Behind and reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, they should continue to support effective grant programs that provide students with after-school and summer programs.

After-school programs work for children, families and communities. Let’s give them the support they need.

Vandell, founding dean of the School of Education at the University of California-Irvine, is a distinguished education researcher focusing on issues of P-20 education and longitudinal studies of development.