By Jennifer VanBuren
The bell rings. Sophie packs up her bag and jumps on the bus. Mom greets her at the door with warm oatmeal raisin cookies and cold milk. After a short chat about their days and a few chores, Sophie takes out her math homework and mom is there to help. Shortly after, dad comes home from work and they head to the garage to work on her science project before piano lessons.
How likely is this scenario? Not very. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 26 percent of school-aged children are on their own after school. One million of these kids are in grades K-5. More than 27 million parents of school-age children are employed, including 23 million who work full time.
While most students K-5 in our region have access to some level of affordable after-school care, our middle school students are just that—stuck in the middle. Often seen as self-sufficient enough to not require typical childcare, they are still very vulnerable to social pressures. Austin-area community organizations, such as the YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, local recreation centers and individual school districts provide quality after school enrichment programs for older kids in addition to the regular K-5 after school care.
The purpose of these programs goes far beyond childcare, and even children who have a parent at home after school can benefit from participation. Some enrichment classes that may be offered include: cooking, Spanish, drama, dance and outdoor recreation. Others may include money management, creative writing or video game design. Teens may be surprised at the really cool options. Many of these programs are funded through local, state and federal grants. In addition to the community resources, parents can find many terrific programs provided by private businesses.
“My 14 year-old is pretty responsible. She even babysits neighborhood kids on weekends. Do I really need to pay for an after school program so someone can babysit her?”This is a thought that runs through the minds of many parents of tweens and young teens. “Fight Crime: Invest in Kids”is an anti-crime organization of nearly 5,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors and violence survivors.
By collecting and analyzing data, this proactive group determines what prevents youth from turning to a life of crime and distributes this information to policy makers, parents, educators, community leaders and the general public. Did you know that the peak hours for youth experimentation with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and sex are between 3 and 6 p.m.? This is also the prime time for juvenile crime. (Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, 2003.)
In 2010, led by Dr. Joseph Durlak, researchers at Loyola University’s Department of Psychology analyzed after-school programs with a goal to promote personal and social skills in children and adolescents. They found significant increases in the student’s self-perceptions and positive social behaviors. Academic performance also increased, while challenging behaviors significantly decreased. The study, published in the American Journal of Community Psychology, clearly indicated that many aspects of a child’s life can be improved when after school programs include a component that focuses on personal and social skills. With the regular school day so jam-packed with academics, these skills may unfortunately be passed over completely. While not directly measured on standardized tests, these skills have been shown to directly impact achievement and performance.
Protecting our youth requires intentional programming. Countless studies from cities across the nation consistently demonstrate that after school programs help keep our teens and community safe. Teens who do not participate in after school programs are nearly three times more likely to skip classes than teens who do participate. They are also three times more likely to use marijuana or other drugs, and are more likely to drink, smoke and engage in sexual activity. (YMCA of the USA, 2001.) During the ages of 12 to 15, people begin to develop patterns of alcohol, tobacco and other drug use—patterns that last through adulthood.
Texas After Centers on Education (ACE) is a program that provides a safe and structured environment for social interaction as well as academic support and enrichment that compliment school-day curriculum. These programs are provided free of charge. Part of the mission of ACE-Austin is to increase promotion and graduation rates and prepare students for college and the workforce.
clubGEN is a weekly after school program for girls in grades 4-8 provided by GenAustin. High school girls and group leaders work with participants in a researched-based curriculum that help girls through the challenging teen years. Classes are offered in Austin, Del Valle, Hays, Manor, Pflugerville and Round Rock ISDs. GenAustin also hosts the “180 Program,”which is designed for middle and high school girls who are at high risk for becoming involved with the juvenile justice system.
While public after-school programs require a substantial investment, the economic benefits are significant. Many school districts team up with community groups in offering valuable enrichment activities for youth. For example, Georgetown ISD partners with The Georgetown Project and Georgetown Parks and Recreation. Leander ISD provides after school enrichment classes once a week and refers families that need more regular programming to the local YMCA. Round Rock provides programming through Clay Madsen recreational center in addition to the school programs.
With cuts to social services and education, even research-based programs that have demonstrated effectiveness in increasing academic performance, social skills, health and safety are always in danger of being cut. Local, state and federal funds in addition to private donors keep these programs afloat. If you are interested in after-school programs, contact your local school district for recommendations. If you are looking to provide financial support to these programs, many non-profit organizations would be grateful to put your donation to good use for the benefit of our children, community safety and economic future.