After-school Leaders Say Demand For Programming Has Grown

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After-school program leaders and supporters gathered at the U.S. Department of Education Tuesday to plead their case for dramatically expanding the number of after-school programs throughout the country.

To lend a sense of urgency to their cause, the Afterschool Alliance released a new report called America After 3 PM that is billed as the “most in-depth study of how America’s children spend their afternoons.”

Among the “key findings” of the report that you can expect to hear after-school providers quote to bolster the case for expanding after-school programming: The number of children “unsupervised” after school has risen to 15.1 million – or 26 percent of all youths – since the Afterschool Alliance did its first report in 2004. Then, 14.3 million – or 25 percent of all youths – were unsupervised after school.

Although the report conjures up images of little tykes left to fend for themselves – “In fact, each day in America, some 15 million children – some as young as 5 years old – are  without supervision at home or on the streets”—the reality is that the majority of the unsupervised kids are high school students.

And those high schoolers pose an entirely different set of problems from younger children who either roam or are at home alone. Twenty-eight percent of the unsupervised youth are middle schoolers, and 11 percent are elementary schoolchildren.

Such distinctions drew little attention from the after-school program providers, government officials and business leaders who gathered to make the case for more resources to help parents overcome barriers, such as cost and transportation issues, that can often restrict access to after-school programming for their children.

“The bottom line is that more children than ever need our after-school programs, and they don’t have one to go to today,” said Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance.

Perhaps the most influential of guest speakers was a fatigued-looking U.S Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, whose mother ran an after-school program in his native Chicago.

Too many kids, the education secretary said, return to empty homes after school because their parents must work two and three jobs to make ends meet.

Schools can remedy that problem by partnering with nonprofits and giving them rent-free space to operate programs after school. Such an arrangement makes sense, Duncan said,  given the fact that many schools are “phenomenal resources” already outfitted with computer labs, libraries and gyms.

“They don’t belong to me, the principal, or the union,” he said. “They belong to the community.

“We (education officials) can run the schools from 9 to 3. They [nonprofits] can run them from 3 to 9.”

Duncan said officials and stakeholders need to “dramatically expand” the array of after-school options for youths – something he says will help to reduce the dropout rate, truancy and violence, among other societal ills.

[Today,  Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder went to Chicago to discuss student safety in the wake of the videotaped beating death of Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old honor student who was on his way to a local community center when he was caught in a confrontation between rival Chicago cliques.  Four teens have been charged with murder in Albert’s death.

Duncan said Wednesday he believes Chicago is going to lead a national conversation on how to combat youth violence.]

At Tuesday’s event, recently-appointed youth members of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Department of Education Student Ambassadors took to the stage to speak about or demonstrate how after-school programs can make a positive difference in their lives.

The youths included the Beacon House cheerleaders from Washington, D.C., who chanted “Elevate your mind, get yourself together,” and Ozvaldo Rodriguez, a lively spoken word artist from Fort Worth, Texas, who spoke of the after-school program in the Fort Worth Independent School District as a lifesaver that can steer youths away from drugs and suicide.

Sylvia Lyles, program director for 21st Century Community Learning Centers, said it was critical to hear from the youths.

“The research tells us in order to develop after school programs to meet children’s needs, we need to ask the children,” Lyles said.

Though the number of children in enrolled in after-school programs has risen from 6.5 million in 2004 to 8.4 million in 2009, “there is another side to the story,” said Mike Boylson, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at JCPenney and a member of board of directors of the JCPenny Afterschool Fund, a sponsor of the America After 3 PM study.

“The demand continues to go up,” Boylson said. “Despite our progress, we still have a long way to go.”