After-School Finds Power and Vision at the Community Level

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The Afterschool Alliance report aims to encourage states and federal and local governments to do more to ensure students have access to quality programs.

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The Afterschool Alliance report aims to encourage states and federal and local governments to do more to ensure students have access to quality programs.

When the school bell rings at the end of each day and each semester, students around the country flood from the confines of their classrooms into a wide variety of places and conditions.

They may go home, to sports practice or to an after-school program. They may end up on the streets. Or alone.

What students do in the after-school hours and the impact it has on their academic performance and personal development is an issue that persists across the nation.

Afterschool Alliance, a national advocacy and think tank organization dedicated to improving after-school options for U.S. youth, identified New Mexico, California and Florida as three of the 10 best states for after-school programs in its 2009 America After 3PM report.

In the organization’s 2011 update of state information and statistics, California and Florida remained two of the top states. New Mexico, however, saw a decline in rates of participation largely due to state budget cuts, according to the report.

Developed to raise awareness of the state of after-school, the report aims to encourage states and federal and local governments to do more to ensure students have access to quality programs. What these three  states have in common is the support they provide programs that function at the community level. The report looked at a number of indicators, including rates of participation and satisfaction in after-school programs.

Taking a local view in New Mexico

New Mexico’s challenges include a large immigrant population and high rates of teen pregnancy, dropouts and poverty.

“We work with community schools partnerships, and at the city level and county level, to create policies to interact with schools in a way that is going to look at the education system as a whole and find out how each and every community system works together,” said Chelanna Balok, director of adolescent development programming for the Central New Mexico YMCA.

New Mexico has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the country and “the rates of poverty are pretty extreme,” said Balok.  “Not just the number of people in poverty, but how far in poverty they are.”

“Many of our students cannot afford to participate in club sports leagues, or pay for tutoring or homework help or other enrichment based programs,” said Danette Townsend, community school manager of the ABC Community Partnership in Albuquerque.

“We’re trying to create policies to interact with schools in a way that is going to look at the education system as a whole and find out how every community system works together,” said Balok.

Community and government partnerships can be a valuable tool for developing effective and sustainable after-school programs.

Strategies employed in New Mexico include focusing on increasing the number of public-private partnerships and “working with communities to build and fund programs as partners rather than ‘providers or vendors’,” according to Townsend. These considerations are especially vital given the tight economy, she said.

A role for policy and partnerships

State organizations, including the Afterschool Alliance’s New Mexico branch, are also working to build a consensus about what after-school means and how it should serve the students. The New Mexico  branch of the Alliance is currently working on developing and implementing statewide standards.

New Mexico organizations are also branching out to “educate those unlikely allies around the value of after-school opportunities,” said Townsend. “Stakeholders from workforce development, health and family fields are beginning to see that after-school has a direct link to supporting many of their efforts.”

Aligning agendas and finding points of support across the various efforts by partners such as the New Mexico PTA and the New Mexico Federation of Teachers, will be critical to increasing access and sustainability, she said

“Programs are most effective when schools partner with community-based organizations to share and leverage resources,” said Townsend.

Townsend cited community schools in particular, which often host after-school programs supported by public-private partnerships. “These are more strongly aligned with the school day and goals, incorporate student voice in program design and selection, incorporate family and community voice and leverage multiple sources of funding to best meet the needs and wants of students, families and schools,” she said.

For example, the YMCA where Balok works partnered with the New Mexico Department of Healthto develop a teen outreach and pregnancy-prevention program which focuses on building self-esteem in middle-school students.

According to Balok, such programs — also focused on improving decision-making — have been effective. The school where the pregnancy prevention program exists has had no teen pregnancies since the program began six years ago.

The YMCA of Central New Mexico also directly partners with the Albuquerque school district to help make the Y’s after-school programs more accessible to students, since both school time and after-school programs are centralized at a single location. Because the Albuquerque district encompasses the whole city, “we’re able to create a partnership that is widespread,” said Balok.

Model Funding Strategies in California

California’s effectiveness was thanks in part to Proposition 49, a 2002 initiative that created the state’s After-School Education and Safety program. This state program funds public elementary, middle and high schools for after-school education and enrichment programs that provide tutoring and additional learning opportunities for students from kindergarten through grade nine.

California has taken steps to recognize that after-school doesn’t just mean the hours after the school day, but rather all time not spent in class — including weekends. Thus the state’s funding for after-school programs is not limited to weekday programs.

“The thinking had been that if you can do stuff on the weekends, then you don’t need that much money,” said Carla Sanger, president and CEO of LA’s BEST, an after-school partner with the Los Angeles Unified School District. “But a lot of weekend work incentivizes kids to come during the week. And if you have line item equipment and donated time or pro-bono work, it doesn’t make sense not to move those dollars to implement a weekend event.”

Proposition 49 allots funds to existing after-school programs and school systems “instead of creating layers of intermediaries,” said Sanger. “There’s a tremendous amount of coherence in afterschool among the state, counties, cities and community-based organizations.”

California’s cohesive policies are particularly effective in creating sustainable after-school programs — a benefit exhibited in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). LA’s BEST is one of the programs administered by Beyond the Bell, an umbrella organization that organizes and works to fund the school district’s after-school programs.

LA’s BEST created Beyond the Bell to consolidate the work and funding for the many community-based organizations operating within the LAUSD.

Staffing by Local Residents

One strategy that LAUSD uses to best meet the needs of its students is to employ a staff that is already familiar with these communities. This strategy is particularly important given that the district is one of the largest in the nation with each community having varied needs.

“Most of our staff lives within two miles of the program where they work. We take responsibility of the support and supervision of staff who come from communities who can best respond to the culture of the kids we’re serving,” said Sanger.

California’s after-school policymakers listen to people who are familiar with the after-school arena, said Sanger. The state’s open communication helped create more effective and less bureaucratic after-school policies.

“It’s important to take the time to realize where the tire hits the road. There’s a lot of experience that needs to be heard before policies are implemented that sound good or sound like they may save money,” said Sanger. “California works hand in hand with practitioners to create a blueprint for expanding learning.”

Community Councils in Florida

Florida is the only state in the country that has Children’s Services Councils (CSC). Passed in 1986, Chapter 125 of the Florida Statutes allows communities to create a council through a county vote. The Florida Children’s Council serves as an umbrella organization for the local councils and helps to leverage connections between national, statewide and local efforts to improve after-school care.

“School-age care is a high-priority for CSCs, recognizing the critical importance of access to enrichment programs that keep students safe, engaged and active,” said Brittany Birken, chief executive officer of the Florida Children’s Council.

The county-based counsels keep the control of after-school services and programs more localized. They administer county funds drawn from property taxes to children and family programs, monitor performance and are responsible for strategic planning of services to best meet the needs of the county’s students.

“Community partners are poised to be able to assist schools to be able to provide additional learning time in their programs,” said Joe Davis, chief executive officer of the Florida Afterschool Network. “The state understands that it’s really important to have tie-ins to the regular school day but to still have a fun and engaging experience.”

At Comstock Elementary School in Miami, the local CSC, called the Miami-Dade Children’s Trust, funds an after-school program run by the Institute for Child and Family Health. The program serves approximately 60 students in kindergarten through second grade each year and aims to promote early literacy and academic development.

While the Children’s Trust and other Florida CSCs fund local programs, they also set standards for after-school services.

“Because we’re funded by the Children’s Trust, the programming guidelines are very specific on the services we have to provide every day,” said Marta Fernandez, program coordinator for educational services at the ICFH. “But it also has to be fun and interesting.”

So while students receive tutoring and lessons to improve literacy along with a variety of other areas of instruction, Fernandez and her team also include story-telling, games and technology.

The program is a community effort. Fernandez explained that corporations and businesses and even sports teams contribute materials and sponsor field trips, which once included a meet-and-greet with the Miami Heat.

The program also reaches out to parents, which Fernandez finds especially important given that the school serves a large immigrant population.

“A lot of families are hesitant to come into the classroom,” said Fernandez. “This is a school with low PTA involvement. The parents usually work long hours, and there may be a language barrier.”

So parents of students in the program are invited early each year to meet with the program’s operators, to help them know how to talk with the child’s teacher, what questions they should ask and to encourage parental involvement.

“The program is about more than just academics,” said Fernandez. “We’re getting the whole family involved.”

Alyssa Morones is a freelance journalist located in Washington, DC.