There is, perhaps, no more powerful place in which the dream of opportunity that America promises is brought to life than in our public schools. School is where our children spend the majority of their waking hours, where they build the skills that will carry them into their future lives and professions, where they first navigate the world without a parent by their side, and where they are most influenced by peers and others outside of family. Making the very most of the time that children spend away from their families is the challenge that faces every person who works to ensure that the dream of opportunity will be realized for all.
For far too many children, however, there is no block of time left as under- or un-utilized than after school and during the summer, when classroom time has ended but parents are at work. For children not engaged in high-quality after-school and summer programs, these are long hours of opportunity missed, time not-well-spent, moments that might instead be filled in un-productive, or even dangerous, ways. Compared to peers who are fully engaged during this time, too many of children fall behind … each empty hour making the American dream harder to attain. Summer, in particular, deals a heavy blow: The National Summer Learning Association highlights that more than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities. As a result, low-income youth are less likely to graduate from high school or enter college.
More than 20 years ago, one mission-driven man set out to change this gap for more of New York City’s Children. In 1991, then-Commissioner of NYC’s Department of Youth Services Richard L. Murphy, launched the Beacons Initiative, opening 10 public schools in high-risk communities and engaging community-based youth-development organization partners to fill them in the after-school, evening and summer hours. Formerly empty hours and under-utilized school buildings were alive and teeming with opportunity, filled with academic enrichment, arts and recreation, teen programming, and a wide range of other youth and family services. During the ensuing 20-plus years, the original 10 Beacons grew to 80, and after-school and summer programs in NYC’s schools spread. In 2005, recognizing the great need for after-school programs, current NYC Department of Youth and Community Development Commissioner Jeanne Mullgrav launched the Out-of-School Time initiative, eventually bringing high-quality after-school programming to hundreds more schools, serving at its peak nearly 85,000 children and teens.
This past February, Richard Murphy passed away, but not before seeing his Beacons Initiative replicated in cities across the country. Similarly, after-school systems are developing in more states, and both extended learning and summer learning are emerging as powerful strategies in urban districts’ efforts to close the achievement gap.
This past month also saw our country face sequestration and the continued threat of cuts to after-school programs and many other human services. Indeed, the financial footing of our country’s after-school system has never been more precarious. Nearly every public funding stream for after-school has already faced budget cuts; programs have had to cut numbers of participants they serve and/or the number of hours they are open, while others have closed altogether. Those that remain open operate with funding that is short-term and/or continuously threatened by new cuts. For example, nearly half of New York City’s public investment in after-school programs is now set to expire on June 30.
Our country needs to move beyond short-term solutions and make a lasting investment in our children’s success – and all of us need to call on our nation’s leaders to take positive action. As of this writing, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Patty Murray (D-WA) are set to reintroduce the Afterschool for America’s Children Act. The bill, to be numbered S.326 to symbolize the significant hours of 3 to 6 p.m., reauthorizes and strengthens the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) initiative (Title IV Part B of ESEA) by enhancing school-community partnerships to support quality learning and enrichment opportunities. We need to urge support for S.326 and the promise it represents — and work to see this promise, and the promise of America’s children, realized.
After-school programs work, and the return on investment is significant. Every dollar spent on after-school programs multiplies itself in savings to the taxpayer many times over. Why? Because children engaged in high-quality learning during the out-of-school hours do better in school and are more likely to graduate. They experience less violence, drug-use and teen pregnancy. Parents, in turn, can keep their jobs and support their families and the economy, knowing their children are safe.
Our country’s future rests in the hands of our children. Our responsibility today is to ensure that they have every possible opportunity to succeed – not only so that they and their families and communities will thrive but also that the country they lead one day will be even stronger than the one we leave to them.
Michelle Yanche is assistant executive director for government and external relations at Good Shepherd Services, a youth development, education and family service agency that serves more than 27,000 people each year.