Journal Issue: When School Is Out Volume 9 Number 2 Fall 1999
After-School Programming: Examples from Three Cities
To describe the current parameters of after-school programs serving low-income children, this article draws heavily on data from the ongoing evaluation of a specific after-school program initiative called MOST (Making the Most of Out-of-School Time). In Boston, Chicago, and Seattle, this foundation-funded effort is working to improve the supply, accessibility, affordability, and quality of after-school programs, especially for low-income children. It is also working to strengthen the overall coherence of the system of after-school programs. (See the description of the MOST Initiative in Box 1.)1 In all three cities, but particularly in Boston and Chicago, the school-age population is predominantly low to moderate income.
Though the observations reported here are preliminary, this evaluation is the first large-scale, systematic look at programs for school-age children to be undertaken since the National Study of Before- and After-School Programs surveyed a national sample of programs in 1991, not focusing on low-income children.2Need, Demand, and Supply
There are some 10 million children ages 6 through 13 in the United States living in families with incomes less than 150% of the federal poverty threshold. Estimates of the percentage of these children who need after-school programs depend on one's reasons for promoting them. A majority of low-income children need after-school programs for a practical reason—child care. In 1998, some 5.3 million low-income children between ages 6 and 12 had both parents or a single parent working after school.3 One can argue further that after-school programs should be viewed as a normative developmental support, available to any low-income child who is interested. Many low-income children today are too much on their own, both physically and psychologically, and could benefit from safe, protected spaces to play, an extra measure of adult attention, additional help with homework, and greater opportunity to participate in art and sports activities. By that logic, virtually all low-income children need access to programs.
At the same time, the actual demand for places in after-school programs reflects a variety of factors—from transportation to children's preferences (especially as they get older); from parents' awareness of available options and success getting their children enrolled 4 to their willingness and ability to pay program fees. Low-income parents' interest appears to be high when programs are free or nearly so, dropping sharply the more they are asked to pay. Many believe that, if necessary, they can leave their older children unsupervised and their younger children in sibling care for a few hours. As a result, waiting lists for free or heavily subsidized programs might exist alongside empty spaces in programs that have less access to public funding.5
How many low-income children are currently being served by after-school programs? There are few reliable data on this question, although parent surveys conducted for other purposes suggest participation rates of somewhere between 10% and 30%.6 The MOST evaluation included an effort to document the supply of after-school programs in the three participating cities where, as noted earlier, the school-age population is predominantly low to moderate income. The study integrated information on the supply of programs from regulatory agencies, funders, and providers, although the data were fragmented, incomplete, and difficult to aggregate, because they referred to different phenomena.7 In the three cities, the data revealed slots or places enough to serve 10% to 20% of the population of school-age children in programs that run daily through the year; and spaces for another 10% to 15% of the population in programs that meet episodically each week, or during the year. As Table 1 shows, the study estimated that full-time slots were available in Boston for about 14% of the school-age population; in Chicago for about 9% of the children; and in Seattle for about 35% of the relevant age group. Altogether, the limited available data suggest a sizable gap between need and supply.Providers and Support Organizations
The supply of after-school programs that currently exists is provided by a wider variety of institutions and agencies than almost any other type of service. The largest providers to low- and moderate-income children are schools and private nonprofit social service agencies. The latter category includes child care centers,8 organizations like settlement houses and community centers, and national youth-serving organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, and Police Athletic Leagues. (See the descriptions of youth-serving organizations in the article by Quinn in this journal issue.) In some cities, parks and recreation departments are major providers, and libraries play a small but growing role.9 Catholic schools provide some after-school programming, as do churches, community associations, tutoring or mentoring organizations, and even a few public housing authorities.
About one-third of schools in low-income neighborhoods report offering some type of after-school program,10 which sometimes is operated by the school and sometimes is run in school space by other agencies. (See the article by Dryfoos in this journal issue.) In Seattle, for instance, 16 middle schools provide space for programs funded by the Parks and Recreation Department, which operates some programs itself and contracts with community agencies to run others. The Seattle schools also serve as host sites for programs run by the YMCA. In Boston, few schools operate after-school programs themselves, but schools provide sites for more than 50 after-school programs run by other agencies.
Churches and community associations (particularly ethnic mutual assistance associations) are providing more and more after-school programs as a by-product of their responsiveness to community needs. Both tend to have small programs that are minimally funded and staffed, and that use as many volunteers as they can find. Though small, these programs help to fill the many "microgaps" in after-school program coverage, and some play a critical bridging role between immigrant families and mainstream institutions such as schools.
In addition to agencies that provide direct service or provide space for direct services, the after-school program field includes an array of supporting organizations. These organizations license many after-school program providers, help families to find programs, and offer training, education, technical assistance, or curricular resources to direct service providers. Most (but not all) after-school programs are subject to licensing by the state and city agencies that regulate child care. Licensing agencies monitor programs to assure that minimum standards are met in such areas as program size, staff-child ratio, amount of space per child, building safety, and sometimes provider qualifications and continuing education.11 Child care resource and referral agencies provide information on all types of child care to parents, and some offer training for providers. Cultural institutions such as museums and dance or theater companies may offer on-site activities and workshops that enrich local programs, often at minimal cost. In some cities there are unique organizations that support after-school programs. One example is the School's Out Consortium in Seattle that, among other activities, develops ongoing training and technical assistance relationships with specific programs. In Chicago, the After-School Action Program in Uptown-Edgewater serves as a hub, support mechanism, and broker for a network of 30 small providers. Staff help the programs seek funding, organize training, develop innovative programming, and identify resources in the arts, science, and tutoring.12Activities and Emphases
After-school programs look, feel, and work alike in some ways, and they differ in many others. Most share a common activity structure—a mix of homework help, snacks, free time, arts and crafts, table games, gym or playground time, a weekly activity in music or dance, cultural awareness activities, and field trips. These core activities increasingly are supplemented by tutoring, reading time, and special curricular elements such as science activities. Most programs divide children into two or more age-groupings, depending on program size. The structure of activities and physical environment for younger groups are similar to those found in early childhood programs, using rooms with thematic activity areas, plentiful books, games, and supplies. The activities and environment for older children are more like those found in youth programs, with a space resembling a drop-in room with comfortable furniture but fewer materials.
After-school programs are characteristically safe places where children can be themselves and escape the pressures they may experience elsewhere. Staff are not authority figures in the traditional sense, and they usually have less of an agenda than parents or teachers. After-school programs generally are sensitive to community norms, parental preferences, and the staff's understanding of children's support needs. Their flexibility often permits them to fill in gaps in children's experiences and between the institutions in children's lives. For instance, programs for refugee and immigrant children often include some English language instruction and mediate between families and the school system.
Despite common elements and qualities, there is a good deal of variety among programs in this field. Some emphasize academics, others recreation and play, and still others arts or science. Some emphasize the goal of protecting children, others enriching their out-of-school hours, others preventing problems. A program director in one rough neighborhood in Boston noted that his main goal was "to keep kids off the street and alive." Another program in an equally rough neighborhood offered not just a safe haven but also a variety of art experiences taught by local artists, such as mask-making, dance, drumming, stilt-walking, puppetry, clay-making, theater, and silk screen techniques. Still another Boston program has a mission of building girls' interest in sports. And a principal notes that "We need to extend the school day. And how do you do that? This [the school's new after-school program] is a superlative opportunity."
Programs that operate from a recreation or social group work tradition tend to have more of a whole-group focus; those that operate from an early childhood/child care tradition have more of an individual-child focus and afford more individualized experiences. Youth-serving organizations and park districts have had an open enrollment philosophy; children become members for a nominal fee and then drop in whenever they wish during the year. The growing number of tutoring programs in the schools may serve a defined group of children two or three days a week. Programs that view their work primarily as child care tend to have a more explicit agreement or contract with parents to assume responsibility for a child every day during certain hours.
Differences in structure, content, and emphasis in after-school programs obviously lead to differences in children's experiences. Some degree of variability is appropriate, giving choices to children and parents. Yet it also raises the question of what low-income children's after-school time should be about. That question may prove increasingly contentious as schools and community-based organizations are pressed to work together in designing and running after-school programs. Schools, under enormous pressure to improve children's test scores, appear to believe they have no choice but to address that objective. Community-based organizations tend to believe that children need respite from school-related pressures, opportunity to experience and explore other domains, and time to just be children. A director of a community- based program in Chicago noted that it shouldn't have to be the case, but "basically we have to be an antidote to school for kids."13