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After-School Special

What happens to kids after school matters, even more than we think

Hilary Benson

Published on: August 24, 2014

Editor’s note: In this nine-month series we will explore how new voluntary standards developed in Washington state are impacting the quality of after-school programs that serve about 134,000 youths after the school bell rings. We will explain what parents should seek in a program, look at research on the impacts of quality care on kids’ development and academics, and visit with programs that are successfully serving kids and helping families. After-school Special’s independently reported content is funded by a journalism grant in partnership with the Raikes Foundation and School’s Out Washington.

When Rebecca Schneir’s son Eli, started kindergarten last year, he loved his teacher, the classroom and making new friends. It was what went on after school that was bumpy.

For the Schneirs, as for many other working parents, there is a tricky two- to three-hour gap between the end of the school day and the end of the workday. When his parents tried to enroll Eli in the well-regarded after-school program at West Woodland Elementary in Seattle, where he attended school, there was a long waiting list. “That was the first crazy thing, and I’d had no idea,” says Rebecca Schneir. So the Schneirs opted for another program that transported kids to a nearby facility.

At pickup time, Schneir would find her son — normally a social, energetic boy — sitting sullenly on a couch by himself. And there were other red flags.

“I’d go to check him out, and there was just a sign-out sheet by the door. No adult, no one saying, ’Bye, Eli.’ It was odd,” his mother says.

Then one day after school, the 6-year-old refused to get on the bus and started to cry. The Schneirs pulled their son out and ultimately found another program through the YMCA of Greater Seattle, where Eli now thrives and doesn’t want to leave at the end of the day.

What makes one after-school program a positive experience while others fall short? The window between 3 and 6 p.m. was long viewed by some providers and parents as downtime, playtime or a dead zone in a child’s day. Common thinking was that kids needed to be supervised, but beyond that, what happened didn’t really matter.

It turns out, it does matter.

While the importance of early childhood education is well recognized, the field of after-school youth and summer programs is now evolving in exciting ways. A survey of 68 studies of after-school programs found that students participating in high-quality programs went to school more often, behaved better, received better grades and performed better on tests than their peers, according to the Afterschool Alliance, based in Washington, D.C.

As recently reported by the Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality, a national leader in this field, a study of more than 500 Nashville, Tenn., students in 16 after-school programs found that youths enrolled in higher-quality programs had fewer disciplinary referrals. Higher levels of program attendance combined with higher quality were related to greater improvement in math grades during the span of the school year. 

As the Weikart Center’s Joe Bertoletti, field services director, points out, “The great thing about out-of-school time is it’s flexible, so it can match the interests of young people.”

What if your after-school program not only supervised your child and kept him or her safe, but also, as part of its service mission, helped uncover hobbies and passions, encouraged better academic performance, and facilitated positive social and emotional experiences ater improvement in mlearning gaps left by the tightly packed school-day experience?

A group of youth advocates, seeing a lack of consistent assessment and support for quality programming, believed such a goal deserved focus and funding.

Five years ago, the nonprofit School’s Out Washington, in partnership with the Seattle-based Raikes Foundation, rolled out a detailed road map for youth-serving programs to achieve their highest quality. It is known as the Youth Program Quality Initiative, or YPQI.

To envision a model ranking good, better and highest-quality care, imagine a pyramid: At the base is a physically and emotionally safe environment. Built upon that should be a supportive environment, topped by solid peer interaction and, at the apex of a high-quality program, youth engagement, through which children are given opportunities to choose their activities, take the lead in planning them for the group, and receive time to reflect on and process what they are learning.

In 2009, the Seattle YMCA’s program at Hamilton International Middle School was one of the initial groups to implement the YPQI.

“In the area of youth development, this initiative has been really transformative,” says Erica Mullen, YMCA executive for education initiatives. “This isn’t about high-stakes scoring of staff. Site supervisors do assessments, but we also do cross-observations so staff see things from a different perspective and can say to each other, ‘I saw you do this, I want to do this, too.’”

The initiative was such a positive experience for the staff and 200-plus students at Hamilton that the organization expanded to other sites and to the YMCA’s elementary-school-age programs in 2011.

On a recent afternoon during the YMCA’s program at Arbor Heights Elementary in West Seattle, Isaac Hale, assistant program supervisor, asks the 20 or so kindergartners through second-graders sitting in a circle if any of them want to share something about their day.

Kids eagerly share details about a field trip they went on or an ice cream snack they had. Afterward, they vote on their afternoon activities and are given leadership roles in art or science projects.

“After-school programs are overlooked and under-appreciated,” says Hale. But if families vote with their feet, things are working here — the Arbor Heights program has grown in four years from 22 kids to 55.

There are no uniform standards or guidelines for after-school programs in Washington or any other state. This past April, School’s Out launched a set of quality standards that all groups serving youths outside the classroom can now voluntarily adopt. These standards cover everything from the cultural responsiveness of a program to students’ safety and wellness to professional development for staff and volunteers.

“I wish I’d spent more time checking things out,” mom Rebecca Schneir says. “I just didn’t know.”

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