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Volume 18, Number 6
November/December 2002

Afterschool Education

A New Ally for Education Reform


"The revolution begins at 3:00 p.m.," Jodi Wilgoren wrote in the New York Times. "The explosion of after-school programs...represents nothing less than the reimagining of the school day for the first time in generations." Indeed, few current issues in child and youth development receive as much attention today as organized out-of-school time. One key factor to its significance is its sheer quantity—children spend about 80 percent of their waking hours outside of school. In addition, education reform, changes in welfare laws, and the growth of prevention services for youth have all played a role in bringing afterschool to the fore.

At our organization, the Program in Afterschool Education and Research (PAER), established in 1999 at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, we have found significant growth in scholarly, popular, and political support for afterschool programs each year since our inception. The rationale behind this support is clear—many studies suggest that organized afterschool activities promote positive outcomes for children and youth.

A 2001 survey showed that 94 percent of U.S. voters believe that children and teens should have organized activities or places to go after school every day that provide opportunities to learn. Financial support is growing as well. Many philanthropies have decided to invest in afterschool education as a way to support communities, schools, and families. The federal government has increased its funding through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers from $1 million in fiscal year 1997 to $1 billion in 2002, with the possibility of $1.5 billion in funding in the coming year (see sidebar "Better Learning Out of School"). This infusion of funding and the joining of many creative minds are helping to move the field from low status and weak infrastructure to a more established domain where after school education is a significant player in education reform and community development.

There is also growing evidence that good afterschool programming makes a difference in kids' lives. Studies in child development and education suggest that attendance at afterschool is associated with better grades, peer relations, emotional adjustment, and conflict resolution skills. Children who attend programs also spend more time on learning opportunities and academic and enrichment activities than their peers. Combine this evidence with the statistics we know all too well—that unsupervised time after school is associated with involvement in violence, substance abuse, and other risk-taking behaviors—and the necessity for high-quality afterschool programs becomes even clearer.

With the availability of funding and the social need for organizing the risky time when children are out of school and parents are still at work, more and more superintendents, principals, and teachers are supporting afterschool efforts. According to a survey released in September 2001 by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, 67 percent of principals now offer optional afterschool programs. This is a good trend. However, few of these school leaders have received any training in how to organize afterschool time in their buildings and districts. And despite the importance of afterschool programming and full-service and community schools initiatives, few colleges and universities train the new generation of educators in how to manage the new reality they will encounter in their buildings.

What is interesting is that school leaders are changing as they encounter afterschool programs and staff. In one collaboration between PAER and a large, urban intermediary charged with coordinating afterschool citywide (The After-School Corporation), we provided training for principals over a three-year period. In the first year, the concern of many of the principals was control, and they worried about what happened in the building under their watch. In the second year, as collaborations matured, principals spoke about the exciting possibilities of collaboration with church-based organizations and the institutional "marriages" that had formed. In the third year the principals talked increasingly about a seamless day, one where the school influenced the afterschool hours, but also where practices, people, and organizations that had been confined to afterschool were entering the school day.

This development is encouraging. It is indeed a creative and productive moment in afterschool, as many institutions, collaboratives, and individuals are coming together to shape the afterschool movement. Not surprisingly, the most interesting efforts occur when schools, community-based organizations, museums, universities, or clinics join forces to create a system of afterschool care and education. Innovative networks are reported from many cities, as well as from suburban and rural school districts. One example is the movement in Boston to bridge communities and institutions to support educational creativity and excellence in afterschool. The Afterschool Bridging Initiative, led by the Harvard After-School Initiative (HASI), a $5 million grant-making and technical assistance program, connects schools and families with afterschool programs. HASI is also part of Boston's Afterschool for All Partnership of 13 organizations that are trying to expand the quantity and quality of afterschool programming. This partnership aims to increase the quality of learning opportunities and has commissioned reports from research partners on the most important aspects of learning in afterschool settings, from tutoring and technology to project-based learning and bridging with schools and families. Such innovation is found in other cities, including San Francisco (with the Beacon Initiative), Los Angeles (with L.A.'s BEST), Chicago, San Diego, New York, Kansas City, Denver, and many more. All are exemplary in their approaches.

Bridging school and afterschool does not mean that all programs must become school-based or that they should become school-like. What is important is that programs aim to create continuity across learning opportunities, achieve integration of different learning goals, and deepen children's exploration and skill acquisition, all the while respecting the fact that there exist many types of learning that should be protected across a diversity of learning environments. Increasingly, programs divide the time into non-academic learning and recreational activities, such as sports or arts and crafts; academic activities such as structured curricula or enrichment in language arts, science, and math; and homework support.

A recent conference at Harvard, "Learning with Excitement," brought together a national working group to explore afterschool education and develop some common principles for the field. Our findings and their practical applications will be released this month in the book Afterschool Education: Approaches to an Emerging Field (Harvard Education Press). Despite significant philosophical, training, and fiscal differences of the various entities involved in afterschool, we have found a decreasing focus on divergence and an increasing focus on joint programming and problem solving. Whatever the mix, the time of glorified babysitting is over. More and more, afterschool programs are being constructed as informal learning environments, using those three hours each day to create meaningful and rich spaces to engage and teach children.

Gil G. Noam is director of the Program in Afterschool Education and Research (PAER) and an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is co-author, with Gina Biancarosa and Nadine Dechausay, of Afterschool Education: Approaches to an Emerging Field (Harvard Education Press, 2003).

Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    Afterschool Alliance. "Afterschool Alert Poll Report, July/August 2001."

    Program in Afterschool Education and Research (PAER), 8 Story St., 3rd Fl., Cambridge, MA 02138; 617-496-0656; fax: 617-384-8152.

    Gil G. Noam and Beth M. Miller, eds., Youth Development and After-School Time: A Tale of Many Cities (Series: New Directions for Youth Development: Theory, Practice, and Research, no. 94). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002.

    J. Wilgoren, "The Bell Rings but the Students Stay, and Stay." New York Times, January 24, 2000.