Challenges (and Solutions) to Finding Quality After-School Programs Near You
You chose a house in a neighborhood you care about and are sending your kids to the best school you could find. You’re all set to coast on through your career, right? Unfortunately, no. The typical American school day does not line up with typical American work hours, which leaves families scrambling to fill the gaps after school and on planned school closures (not to mention during snow days and other unexpected days home with sick children).
“After-school programs help working families do what they need to do, especially in the hours of 3 p.m. – 6 p.m. and during the summer months,” says Kathryn Vargas, the director of Allegheny Partners for Out of School Time (APOST) — an initiative of the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania. This regional network of after-school programs works to increase access to these invaluable resources in Allegheny County. Vargas says, “You’d think in an urban area, it wouldn’t be hard … but it is, and in rural places it’s even harder.”
Here we’ll explore what it means to have quality after-school care, the barriers to finding it, and what to do if you’re facing obstacles.
First, Here’s Why After-School Care Matters
Locating after-school programming is worth the work to find. Research shows that children who participate in after-school programs make better decisions, improve work habits and grades, and have higher graduation rates than peers who do not regularly participate.
If you live in a place with choices in your after-school care programming, it might feel overwhelming to select the best fit for your family. According to Vargas, since not all after-school is academic focused, quality indicators in out-of-school learning environments often include positive youth and adult relationships, structure, management, safety, health, and activities. “Nurturing healthy and positive relationships with young people is really important,” Vargas says, in addition to the physical space for the program and the nutrition aspect of snacks or meals provided.
As for activities, after-school programs offer every type of experience from leadership skills to coding to fine arts instruction. “Understand what kind of experience you want,” Vargas advises, noting this becomes particularly important with older youth. “After-school experiences can really help [teens] decide what they might want to do in the next phase of their lives.”
Vargas says, “You can often find really niche interest programming at local colleges or universities that might work with students as early as middle school for enrichment activities in engineering or dance.” But many programs, such as the Boys and Girls Club of America, offer strong, comprehensive after-school experiences that support academics, leadership skills, and healthy lifestyles.
Vargas suggests parents ask questions about how quality is measured for after-school programs in their area. It’s a good sign if a program has given thought to making sure children’s experience there will be positive. As kids get older, quality programming might focus on career or higher education readiness, often partnering with local businesses for shadowing or even internship opportunities.
“You’d think in an urban area, it wouldn’t be hard … but it is, and in rural places it’s even harder.”
Not So Fast: Barriers to After-school Care
It’s all well and good to select an after-school program that helps your child with a foreign language or refines her Karate skills, but for starters, getting your kids to the space can prove impossible.
Check with your child’s school first to see if they offer after-school programming — which eliminates the transportation barrier. Vargas says statewide, most Pennsylvania after-school programs are run in school buildings because of this issue and that access to high-quality after-school programming should absolutely be something parents investigate when choosing where to live.
Not everyone will have such easy access, however.
Some community groups work together, sharing vans to and from area schools to transport children to different programs. Some areas of the country offer kid versions of ride-sharing services. But transportation is definitely a huge element to consider when families plan for after-school programming.
Another barrier is that, as a nation, we just don’t offer enough after-school programming to meet the needs of our families. The national After-school Alliance found that 19.4 million children not currently enrolled in a program would be if their parents had access to one. Further, the Alliance found that 11.3 million children are left without supervision in the hours between 3:00p.m. and 6:00p.m. when their parents return from work.
This unmet demand comes down to lack of funding at both state and federal levels. Vargas says 21st Century Funding (part of the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act) is the only piece of national funding dedicated to this out-of-school learning, falling under the department of education. “School districts and organizations who offer programming in partnership with school districts can apply for this funding,” Vargas says. In particular, programs serving low-income children rely on public funding to keep the lights on.
As a nation, we are very strongly in favor of keeping this funding: A 2017 Quinnipiac University poll found 83% of respondents opposed cutting public funding for after-school programming. But, unfortunately, this is a line item that is frequently zeroed out in budgets.
Here to Help: Solutions and Resources
So what can families do if you live in one of the places with more demand than available spaces in after-school programs?
Vargas says all states have a network of after-school providers, and that these resources are focused on policy — they send people to speak with lawmakers, but also help parents write letters or make calls. The national Afterschool Alliance website has a “Take Action” tab where families can sign petitions and stay informed about their state.
Regional groups like APOST connect to the direct practice of the programming, professional development, and building capacity for programs. Vargas says, “For parents looking for support finding a high-quality program, you may want to reach out to a regional or state network to see if they have a program finder or a comprehensive list of programs that incorporate continuous quality improvement efforts into their work.” The Every Hour Counts Network has links to regional resources for much of the country.
Many places have local chapters of national programs with proven track records for quality after-school programming. These include:
- Boys & Girls Clubs of America
- 4-H Council
- Girls, Inc.
- Camp Fire USA
- Police Athletic Leagues
- After School All Stars
Community organizations like parks and recreation centers or places of worship might have programming, but don’t necessarily have an online presence. The After-school Alliance recommends parents reach out to other families to ask what their children do after school.
In the short term, if there is truly an after-school care desert in your area, you might have to join forces with other families and create a program from scratch. The After-school Alliance has some resources for starting an after-school program where you live.
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