Sharquita Young puts her hands on her hip and talks fast as she recites a poem about freedom—being able to do what she wants and go where she wants. Sharquita is practicing her poem for an upcoming performance in a fundraiser for America SCORES, the group that organizes after-school programs at her school. Later, as she sits on a bench in her school’s cafeteria, Sharquita says she likes poetry, but her favorite part of after school is playing soccer. “When I go home, I go into the backyard and kick around the soccer ball,” says the slight girl.
On many levels, Sharquita’s after-school schedule sounds great—soccer three days a week, composing and performing poetry the other two days. She’s writing, thinking, getting exercise, gaining confidence and getting exposure to activities that she otherwise might not participate in. Research suggests that after-school activities are an important addition to the regular school day, especially for poorer children. Opportunities to dance, learn to play a musical instrument, play sports or get tutoring—all the activities that middle- and upper-class children take advantage of because their families can afford to pay—help boost learning and close the achievement gap.
Indeed, the Harvard Family Research Center advocates re-defining what is considered a high-quality education to include after-school programs as “complementary learning.” This position is shared by prominent educators who signed the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education platform, an effort that aims to have the federal No Child Left Behind Act revamped to tackle issues outside of school.
“Schools need help. They need support,” says Priscilla Little, associate director at the center.
Mayor Richard M. Daley long ago embraced that notion and, with investment from foundations, worked on improving after-school programs. Chicago Public Schools leaders also see the importance of such programs. Under the tenure of former CEO Arne Duncan, the district dramatically expanded its community schools initiative, which seeks to make campuses a focal point of the neighborhood by keeping them open after-hours with activities and services for adults and children. (Chicago is home to the Federation for Community Schools, an initiative that is working to expand community schools throughout Illinois.)
Chicago is now seen as a national model, and high-level advocates are working to convince the state Legislature to create a dedicated funding stream for after-school programs.
WHY THIS MATTERS
Forty years of research has proven that after-school and summer programs for low-income students can help to close the achievement gap. Nationally prominent educators are calling for out-of-school learning time to be part of the next incarnation of No Child Left Behind. Chicago is seen as a leader in this area, but there are still issues to tackle.
- After-school programs are spread unevenly across the city, and there is no effective mechanism to ensure all students have access.
- Funding for after-school programs is a hodge-podge and comes from every level of government as well as foundations and individuals. Advocates want Illinois legislators to create a dedicated funding stream, a tough sell in a cash-strapped state.
- To be effective, after-school programs must provide high-quality learning and enrichment activities. But there is no single definition of quality or how to measure it, and getting heterogeneous programs to agree to common standards is a difficult task.
But, even with the commitment of prominent leaders, piecing together the world of after school and figuring out how to make it more cohesive has been difficult. More than 15 years after Chicago started this process, it is still difficult to figure out how many children are being served, where program are located and whether the programs offer quality activities.
The Chicago Out-of-School Time Project, created in 2006 and supported by $11 million in grants from the Wallace Foundation, aims to create a cohesive, citywide system of high-quality after-school programs. Part of that money has gone to developing a shared information system to collect statistics on programs across the city, including the type of activity, participation and attendance. About 85 percent of programs citywide are now being tracked in the system.
Ultimately, city officials want to be able to use the information to evaluate accessibility and to impose some accountability measures.
The Project provided Catalyst Chicago with data that show 135,000 students participate in 33,000 publicly funded programs across the city—but there are disparities. For one, teens, especially Latinos, are the least likely to participate in after-school programs. And accessibility is spotty: In Calumet Heights, for example, the Project’s data show just one program for every 100 children, while West Town has 19 programs for every 100 children.
The Out-of-School Time Project is still in the process of figuring out a significant piece of the puzzle: how many spaces are available in each program.
“After school is a mixture of contrasting elements: identifiable, and yet heterogeneous, vibrant and yet fragile, a protected space for play and exploration, yet increasingly burdened with compensatory tasks… Most staffs have little or no preparation in working for children.”
This was the observation of evaluators of Chicago’s first major push in the late 1990s to make after-school programming more cohesive. Publishing their report in 2001, the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall researchers noted that an initial infusion of Wallace Foundation money helped create more programs, but they were spread unevenly around the city and varied in affordability and quality.
By 2007, a Wallace Foundation-commissioned study by Public/Private Ventures and The Finance Project found that Chicago was further along than most other cities in crafting a coordinated after-school system, but still needed to develop a dedicated funding source. Hence, a group of advocates formed ACT (Afterschool for Children and Teens) Now. Leaders say they are working with lawmakers to get a bill introduced this spring.
Without a single source of cash, after-school programs are currently funded by a mix of government entities, foundations and individual donors. The result can be a maze as organizations aim for different outcomes, from violence prevention to increasing the graduation rate, says Harry VandeVelde, vice-president of development for the Boys and Girls Club of Chicago, which runs several after-school programs.
In addition, low-income parents can get a child-care subsidy to pay for after-school care for children under the age of 12, VandeVelde notes. But sometimes this only pays for babysitting.
Chicago Metropolis 2020, a membership organization that includes prominent business, civic, religious and government organizations, is involved in ACT Now, says Paula Wolff, a senior executive for the organization. But before a formal proposal comes forward, some points need to be decided.
First, what constitutes an after-school program? “Is it a dance class in the basement of a church?” Wolff asks, noting some activities wouldn’t meet an advocate’s definition.
And, what constitutes quality? “We need some rigorous methods to ensure that we are getting what we pay for,” Wolff says.
The Out-of-School Time Project has come up with a definition. “We are looking for structured, sustained and sequenced programs,” says James Chesire, director of the project. In other words, there should be a plan for what is to occur (kids shouldn’t just come and sit around), children should be expected to participate over a period of time (they shouldn’t just show up one week and then stop coming), and they should be able to get better in whatever they are doing and have increasingly challenging experiences in the program.
“If it doesn’t have these things, it is not fulfilling the promise,” Chesire says. Exactly how to evaluate programs is still up in the air, and Chesire admits there’s a danger in making criteria too rigid. One of the wonderful things is the diversity of offerings in after-school programs in Chicago.
Many times, the first thing that staff talk about when asked about the value of their program is not increased test scores or even the exposure they are giving children. Instead, they talk about being a safe haven. “That is not a small thing,” VandeVelde says.
Robert Pales, the principal of Henson Elementary School in North Lawndale, agrees.
“We are trying to keep them busy and off the streets,” he says. Through the community school program, the school also is able to provide children with a warm, nutritious meal at the end of the day.
In North Lawndale, 30 percent of families live in poverty—a U.S. Census measure taken before the current recession. The community is in the third most crime-ridden police district in the city, according to the Chicago Police Department.
Pales and his colleagues in North Lawndale were so convinced that their students needed extra support that a group of principals got together in 2002 to create a non-profit to get community schools in nearly every neighborhood elementary. Now, the streets of this rough West Side community are virtually child-free in the afternoon, and the lights stay on in the elementary schools well after sunset on winter days. (The group of principals disbanded last year.)
While the key thought in their head might have been to provide a safe place for students, Pales has also used the time to give his students a little extra academic help. For the first hour, all children must go to tutoring. After that, it’s on to cosmetology, fashion design, football or arts and crafts.
At Gregory Elementary, Sharquita excitedly talks about all the different programs she’s gotten a chance to go to. She’s played chess and volleyball, and showed up Saturday morning to work on improving her writing skills for the essay section of the ISAT. She is a straight-A student, but voluntarily went for tutoring for the fun of it.
Sharquita says she has enjoyed the activities. “It is just much more fun than sitting around the house and being bored all the time.”