High School After School: Oxymoron or Opportunity?

The idea of “high school after-school programming” is an oxymoron if one’s image of after-school activities involves 11-year-olds munching snacks, getting help with their homework and finding creative outlets for their energy until their parents arrive at 6 p.m.

But high schools are eligible to apply for after-school program funding under the $1 billion-a-year 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, and – as elementary school programs come into their own and more middle school programs appear – high school is the uncharted territory for after-school advocates.

Just look at California. In September, Gov. Gray Davis (D) signed into law two bills focused on high schools. Assembly Bill 1984 earmarks 21st Century dollars for 10 pilot high school after-school programs. Assembly Bill 2531 offers planning grants to nine districts to create district-wide plans for high schools, building on the Carnegie Corp.’s Schools for a New Society Initiative that has supported teen programming efforts in San Diego and Sacramento.

The high school initiative kicks off a planning process with a longer timeline. The after-school bill, however, has schools gearing up to start programs next year. All eyes will be on the schools selected to demonstrate that after-school programs for older students can attract and hold teens and are worth expanded investment.

After-school enthusiasts in California see this as a high-stakes pilot. The pressure is on from the beginning. Delays in signing the bill meant that applicants have little time to respond to the request for applications. A reasonable first question is whether the applications will be of high quality.

But there are other reasons to be concerned. The conceptual and practical leaps from programming for middle school youth to high school students are bigger than those from elementary to middle school.

And the marketing challenges are huge. After-school advocates, by their own admission, have not focused on high school. Arguing persuasively for serving this population requires revisiting almost every strategic decision made, including communicating, framing policy and developing partnerships.

Interviews with teens suggest that meaningful learning and engagement are the main themes driving their desire to be involved in something positive during the out-of-school hours. Whether activities relate to academic achievement, arts or cultural enrichment, service or employment, teens want to learn skills that they feel matter and they want their time to count for something.

These goals should resonate with policy-makers, parents and the general public. They are related to metrics commonly used to measure progress toward adulthood. But these are not the goals that have driven the after-school movement.

This is a challenge. By and large, the after-school movement in California and across the country has been built on three broad themes: safety, supervision and academic support.

Unfortunately, these themes can quickly backfire when applied to teens. Keeping children safe from harm turns into keeping communities safe from teens. Supervision becomes spying. Academic support becomes mandatory remediation.

The language doesn’t fit. The program models need to change. These are tall orders for program developers with small budgets and a short timeline.

Should advocates for youth programs wait for another train? Especially since this train may already be trying to take on more 6- to 13-year-olds than it can carry?

My vote is to jump now with both feet. After-school programming is not the only funding stream in play. The Workforce Investment Act and the myriad prevention initiatives have funding streams attached to them.

But the after-school train is moving and picking up speed. The federal legislation opened a window when it called for K-12 programs. We should not let that window close for lack of use.

Youth workers and advocates can build on the strong “entitlement” message that has netted amazing results across the country. Equally important, in California and around the country, high school after-school presents an opportunity to build on high school reform efforts to start a coordinated dialogue about expanding learning opportunities for teens in school and in communities, both during and after school.

The California pilot presents an opportunity to show what youth workers know about teens and programs. Let’s not let it slip away.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. Contact:


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