As a sign of the importance of afterschool, over one million Americans recently rallied to advocate for afterschool programs that help keep children safe, inspire learning, and help working families every day, as part of the annual “Keep the Lights On Afterschool” event, according to the Afterschool Alliance. Even though the number of high quality afterschool programs has been growing, parents and children want even more of them.
While providing more high quality afterschool programs seems like a given, unfortunately, there are challenges to making it happen. More dollars would definitely help, but the field needs to also build political will and support, ensure equity within and across all communities and groups of students, and narrow the divide between afterschool providers and the K-12 education system.
To help do this, statewide afterschool networks (SANs) were created and now exist in 50 states. SANs provide a structure for bringing together key decision makers interested in improving outcomes for children and youth through school-based and school-linked afterschool programs. They foster partnerships and policies to develop, support, and sustain high-quality afterschool and expanded learning opportunities and have been critical in leveraging funding streams from various agencies and sources.
But, as AYPF learned while interviewing SAN leaders for a forthcoming paper, How Statewide Afterschool Networks Increase Investment in Afterschool, the challenges noted above are pervasive and need continuing attention. Let’s take a quick look at each one from the perspective of the SANs.
Resources: All of the SAN leaders we spoke with said they lack the financial resources needed to meet the demand for afterschool programming. However, they did say that they are able to use funds from various other programs, such as the child nutrition programs and child care and development fund, to support services and participation in afterschool. While that is a plus, some states are only serving a small fraction of the children and youth with afterschool programs. For example, Laveta Wills-Hays, Network Coordinator, Arkansas Out-of-School Network, said that only 12 percent of children and youth in her state participate in afterschool programs.
Building Political Will and Support: SAN leaders work hard to get state legislators and other stakeholders to support afterschool. Some states, like Connecticut, have taken a long-term approach, in which they build consistent support with legislators, resulting in steady increases in the afterschool budget over many years, according to Michelle Doucette Cunningham, Executive Director, Connecticut Afterschool Network. Others get big wins with campaigns and clear messaging. Still, others don’t have the support they need to fund afterschool and realize they need to ramp up their efforts to develop champions. SAN leaders realize that building champions and supporters of afterschool entails more than just getting the right legislators on their side, but also finding other state, community, and business leaders who can carry their message. For example, Joe Davis, Executive Director, Florida Afterschool Network, said that the Florida Secretary of Justice is a huge supporter of afterschool because he sees the connection to reduced crime and juvenile delinquency.
Ensuring Equity: The supply of high quality afterschool programs is not evenly distributed across states, communities, or student groups, resulting in inequitable access. Rates of participation in afterschool programs remain relatively low among disadvantaged and minority youth, the very youth who may be most in need of academic assistance, a safe environment, mentorship, life skills, and engaging extracurricular activities. Other barriers to ensuring access include lack of transportation, concerns about safety, and family obligations such as caring for younger siblings or going to work. Other groups of children and youth, such as students with disabilities, English language learners, and recent immigrants, may lack access to high quality afterschool programs, although less data is available on those populations. There are also fewer afterschool programs for older youth than younger children and for children who live in rural areas. Many SANs conduct fiscal mapping exercises to identify which communities lack resources and programs. Armed with demographic data and information on which communities or neighborhoods do not have afterschool programs, SANs and community leaders can advocate for more funding or reallocate funding to high need areas.
Narrowing the Divide Between K-12 and Afterschool: Another continuing challenge is that afterschool providers and the K-12 education system face ongoing difficulties in creating strong, aligned partnerships. As a result, SAN leaders spend a great deal creating relationships with K-12 educators and leaders. Jeff Cole, Network Lead, Beyond School Bells, Nebraska, said, “We don’t seek to compete with school day programs, but rather to complement and enhance the quality education available in our state’s public schools. We are working to build greater recognition for the role high quality afterschool programs can play in Nebraska’s P-16 pipeline.” In New Mexico, Danette Townsend, Community School Manager, ABC Community School Partnership and Chair, New Mexico Afterschool Alliance (NMASA), described how the strong community schools initiative in the state has been helpful to advancing afterschool. They advocate that a key component of quality community schools is a strong afterschool program, which aligns with the demands of parents to have more afterschool options. The NMASA has been very intentional that community schools and afterschool are not in competition with each other, but that they both contribute to a stronger educational experience for children and youth.
AYPF’s paper provides more examples and discussion of these topics and also addresses issues of how to link afterschool to other city or stateside priorities, improve quality, and use funds more efficiently. The paper will soon be available at www.aypf.org. A webinar will be held on the same topic on November 16, 2015 from 2:00-3:00pm ET; registration information is available here.