Is Reading Fundamental After School?

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San Jose, Calif. – Can after-school programs help children read better?

Time for progress: Youth workers and youths spend 90 minutes a day on literacy-related activities at the McKinley elementary school in San Jose.

Photo: Martha Shirk

The James Irvine Foundation has spent $58 million trying to answer that question through kids like the 15 second-graders who were found happily writing in their journals here one recent afternoon. The youths, most of whom are poor and Spanish-speaking, are Exhibit A in an eight-year demonstration project that has produced promising results in literacy.

But for evaluators, the findings from the foundation’s five-city program called CORAL – Communities Organizing Resources to Advance Learning – amount to “maybe.” And for some people in youth work, those findings raise fundamental questions about how far after-school programs should go to satisfy academic wishes.

First, the good news: A sample of the 5,300 elementary school-aged children in CORAL showed average gains in reading of nearly half a grade level (0.44) in five months, according to a new report from Irvine. The San Jose kids gained 1.2 grade levels.

That’s a pleasant surprise to people like Maritza Maldonado, a former school administrator who runs the San Jose program but had doubts about CORAL’s academic goals. “It was virtually unheard of then for kids to make academic gains in an after-school program,” said Maldonado, director of the educational services division for Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, which is the lead CORAL agency for San Jose.

But does the after-school field want to follow CORAL’s path? “Literacy activities of various kinds have taken over the typical elementary school day,” said Robert Halpern, professor of child development at the Erikson Institute in Chicago. “It seems absurd to me to have kids spend another hour and a half on them after school, especially because it squeezes out so much other stuff.”

“After-school programs should create time and spaces in kids’ lives for focusing on other developmental tasks and dimensions and activities,” said Sam Piha, an Oakland, Calif.-based consultant who has been involved in the after-school field for 34 years.

After-school programs have always had to serve political agendas. At various times over the past century, Halpern noted, they have been touted as ways to ameliorate mental health problems, mobilize patriotism, speed up assimilation, keep kids safe, reduce crime, prevent pregnancy and even combat obesity.

But for the past 15 years, public and private funders have been pushing after-school programs to focus more on academics. In February, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings cited the 21st Century Community Learning Centers’ (CLC) disappointing impact on test scores as justification for President Bush’s proposal to cut the grant program, now funded at $1.2 billion, by $300 million next year.

As for CORAL, the absence of a control group renders its findings promising, but not conclusive. “It cannot be firmly concluded that the gains made by the CORAL youth are any different from what might be expected had they not taken part in the program,” the project manager and evaluator, Public/Private Ventures (P/PV), cautioned in one of seven reports about the initiative. Even so, P/PV says the initiative produced important lessons for the field:

• Quality matters. Children exposed to a consistent focus on balanced literacy strategies showed the most improvement.

• Children’s engagement matters. The greater a child’s sense of belonging, the more likely he was to enjoy reading and school, and to spend time reading after school. (But engagement had no impact on reading improvement.)

• English-language learners were more likely to improve than English-proficient children, and children who were far behind in reading improved more than children who started at grade level.

“What it underscores is that you have to have a purposeful focus if you hope to have academic improvement,” said Anne B. Stanton, the Irvine Foundation’s youth program director. “The fact that there was blended literacy and enrichment was key. You can do both, which is what we hope is the biggest lesson here.”

A Troubled Start

In the after-school field, CORAL has been known mostly for its very public mid-course change in direction after the Irvine board learned in 2003 that it wasn’t achieving the desired results.

When it launched CORAL in 1999, the foundation had no experience with large initiatives and little experience in public education. There were problems from the start.

In Pasadena, the initial site, community leaders couldn’t agree on an educational agenda or their roles, according to Gary Walker, president emeritus of P/PV. “More resources were dedicated; more staff members were hired; more consultants were brought on,” Walker wrote in a 2007 analysis of what went wrong.

Despite Pasadena’s problems, the foundation expanded CORAL to four more cities with high concentrations of low-income, English-language learners: Fresno, Long Beach, Sacramento and San Jose. Each city had a lead agency – such as the YMCA of Greater Long Beach and the Sacramento Children’s Home – that cumulatively oversaw more than 30 sites.

As with Pasadena, each was promised a $500,000 planning grant, plus $2 million annually for six years. Four foundation staff members worked full time on the initiative, and 15 consultants worked directly with the sites.

Low enrollment delayed data collection, and it wasn’t until May 2003 that the board got its first major report from SRI International, which was then the evaluator. SRI gave low ratings to program quality. Apart from providing homework help, no site had an educational component.

Meanwhile, new research on after-school programming had debunked some of the assumptions on which CORAL was based. Researchers were finding that it was difficult to improve educational performance through after-school programs. Homework help alone was found to be largely ineffective.

The new research, Walker later wrote, “cast serious doubt on previous assertions about the positive potential of after-school programming to improve in-school performance – assertions that had served as CORAL’s foundation.” By then, more than $30 million had been spent, “with little to show.”

At the same time, the foundation itself had fallen into a crisis. Its endowment had declined by one-fourth in three years, forcing it to cut its grants by $20 million. (The annual CORAL grants were reduced from $2 million to $1.6 million.) In April 2003, the foundation’s president, Mary Bitterman, resigned after just 14 months on the job. Her replacement, James E. Canales, took over in May 2003 – just as the media exposed a 1999 compensation package of $717,000 for a previous president, Dennis Collins, along with a $25,000 cash retirement gift.

Throughout 2003, Irvine brought on new board members and program leaders, including Stanton, the youth program director, who had served as executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco. Irvine also hired P/PV to help determine whether CORAL could be salvaged.

Rescue Operation

P/PV recommended that the sites reduce their cost per student, upgrade the quality of enrichment programming, and add a high-quality literacy component. Irvine hired P/PV to manage and evaluate the initiative.

P/PV required the sites to offer a balanced literacy curriculum, combining read-alouds, book discussions, independent reading, writing, and vocabulary and skill development activities. Those would take up 90 minutes of each three-hour session. To bring site costs down to $1.2 million a year each, P/PV cut back on the sites’ community organizing, family outreach, summer programming and communications technology.

Even with $500,000 a year of P/PV staff time devoted to the rescue operation, Walker wrote, it “was not always clear that change would take place with the level of quality desired.”

In the 2004-05 school year, the first with sufficient data to measure outcomes, P/PV evaluators reported an average 0.26 grade-level gain in reading over five months for third- and fourth-graders in sites with inconsistent literacy strategies. For those with consistent literacy instruction, the average gain was 0.45. By the next school year, when programming was more consistently high-quality across sites, the average project-wide reading gain over five months was 0.44 grade level.

In comparison, research suggests that low-income youth tend to fall further behind between first and fourth grade, Amy Arbreton, senior research fellow for P/PV, said via e-mail.

Did CORAL’s gains justify the $58 million investment? Stanton said the foundation did not have a specific measure of success in mind.

“What we wanted to do was see what movement could happen with young people with more purposeful attention to boosting literacy skills,” she said. “Compared to no improvement, which is what we were seeing early on, a 0.44 average gain is good.”

The Way to Go?

Today, CORAL at its best looks like this:

It’s near the end of 90 minutes of literacy-related activities in the program at the McKinley Elementary School in San Jose, and the 15 second-graders seem in no hurry to get out to the playground, where another group is already kicking around a soccer ball.

Leaders: Maritza Maldonado, director of the educational services division of Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, and Raul Tomel, the Coral site manager at the McKinley School.

Photo: Martha Shirk

Raul Tomel, the CORAL site manager, greets most of the children by name. He brings a sense of urgency to his work, because he knows what can happen when a child reaches adolescence without basic skills. Until three years ago, Tomel worked in a gang intervention program.

“The main thing we’re getting them to do here is to learn to love reading,” he said. “If you don’t know how to read, you’re basically sitting in your classes twiddling your thumbs. You can’t learn. Most of the gang members I was working with before weren’t literate.”

Roberto Alvarez, 7, proudly shows a visitor his favorite book: Mighty Spider. “It’s talking about a special animal that’s not an insect, because spiders have eight legs and insects only have six,” he explains.

Dedication like Tomel’s, enthusiasm like Roberto’s, and a focus on literacy from day one are the reasons behind the site’s superior results, Maldonado said. “It was a blessing in disguise that we were the last city to start up,” she says. “We were able to learn from the mistakes of others.”

The program’s ability to retain high-quality literacy services are about to be tested, as the Irvine funding winds down this month at the last of the CORAL sites. San Jose will keep going with money from the federal CLC and the state After School Education and Safety (ASES) programs. But each pays just $7.50 a day per child, compared with $20 a day recently paid by Irvine.

The site relies on public funds for 2,200 of its 2,300 after-school slots, so it has already tightened its belt. Among the cost-saving measures: The child-adult ratio has gone to 20-to-1 from as low as 12-to-1. Each site supervisor now oversees two sites instead of one. And the annual budget for enrichment activities by community groups has shrunk from $45,000 to $5,000, which means that children now attend one enrichment activity per quarter in large groups, instead of one per month in small groups.

One item is non-negotiable. “We will not sacrifice the literacy emphasis,” Maritza said.

Do other after-school programs want to emulate that strict dedication to literacy?

Michael Funk, an administrator with the Beacon after-school program in San Francisco, believes that after-school programs help to make children better students by focusing on traditional youth development goals. As a member of the advisory board that oversees California’s ASES program, Funk fought for the right of after-school programs to choose which outcomes, other than test scores, they can use to measure their success. Those outcomes include positive behavioral changes, homework completion rates and skill development.

“I feel strongly that test scores are the wrong measure of success for an after-school program,” he said. “But there are a number of things that after-school programs can do to connect with the school day.”

For example, he noted: “I’ve got a middle school program that has a movie-making club. To the kids, they’re just making movies. Do I guarantee that their reading scores will go up? No. But do I believe that good things are happening in their lives because they’re engaged and they’re improving their concentration and analytic abilities? Yes.”

A recent analysis of a decade of research about after-school programs, conducted by the Harvard Family Research Project, concluded that high-quality, well-implemented programs benefit children in many ways that can be documented. The common thread among successful programs was “not just that the programs intentionally tried to improve academic performance and therefore offered academic support,” the researchers wrote, “but that they combined it with other enrichment activities to achieve positive academic outcomes.”

The project’s issue brief, After School Programs in the 21st Century, concludes, “Balancing academic support with a variety of engaging, fun, and structured extracurricular or co-curricular activities that promote youth development in a variety of real-world contexts appears to support and improve academic performance.”

Martha Shirk, of Palo Alto, Calif., is a freelance writer and co-author of On Their Own: What Happens to Kids When They Age Out of Foster Care.