Extended School Days

Afterschool programming expands widely in school districts but some question the merits by Priscilla Pardini

Usually, arts, sports and recreation programs are among the first to go when school officials begin trimming their annual budgets to eliminate deficits. But last spring in Milwaukee, despite a projected shortfall of $14 million, officials agreed to spend $1.2 million in new money to beef up the school district's afterschool programs.

"Our kids need things to do after school," says Willie Jude, Milwaukee's deputy superintendent. "And we need a hook to keep them in school. That hook could be playing in the marching band or being in the chess club."

To be sure, the plan was not universally embraced. One member of the Milwaukee school board said it would put too little emphasis on learning. But Jude argues that giving students, especially those in middle and high school, a chance to participate in activities they love can provide a strong incentive to stay in school. That's critical in Milwaukee, where the dropout rate in 1999-2000 was 10.4 percent and high school attendance rates fell to 77.7 percent last fall.

Jude says that Milwaukee schools once offered a full complement of afterschool activities. "But over the years, with budget restraints, busing and an emphasis on test scores, we just happened to get away from it."

Jude wants Milwaukee schools to offer afterschool programs on par with those in nearby suburban districts. He has called for establishing marching bands at five or six of the city's high schools by this fall (last year there were none), as well as new forensic, chess and drama clubs at schools throughout the city. He is particularly interested in activities that give students an opportunity to apply and practice the math and literacy skills they are learning in school.

More afterschool programs also would give students more opportunities to forge relationships with caring adults. "Often, kids latch onto the chess coach, the forensics coach or the band director," Jude says. "In many cases, those relationships translate into better performance in the classroom."

Conflicting Views

"Milwaukee is right on target," according to Ellen Gannett, associate director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time at Wellesley College's Center for Research on Women. "After school is a very precious time in the lives of young people and shouldn't be wasted. It can be extra learning time, time for enrichment, time to spend in a safe place with caring adults."

But Darcy Olsen, director of education and child policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute, says schools already struggling to provide quality services during the school day are ill-equipped to take on the additional burden of providing afterschool programming. What's more, Olsen is not convinced of the need for extending the length of the school day.

"Kids' lives are so over-structured already," she says. "They have more homework than ever and lots of other activities, and only a couple of hours after school before they have to go to bed."

Gannett and Olsen each cite research to support their positions. Gannett points to studies by the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, which found that approximately 8 million children ages 5 to 14 regularly spent time without adult supervision. In some cases, children are alone as much as 25 hours a week. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, much of the time is likely spent watching television or playing video games. According to the foundation, average daily media exposure among 2 to 4 year olds is well over 4 hours and peaks at about 6½ hours by the age of 12.

Other studies have concluded that children without adult supervision are at greater risk of accidental injury and death, drug and alcohol abuse, being involved in a crime or dropping out of school than their supervised peers.

Olsen, though, citing data from the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Bureau of the Census and the National Child Care Survey, says only 2 percent of children ages 5 to 12 regularly care for themselves after school. She also cites the National Study of Before- and After-School Programs, which found a surplus of afterschool programs nationwide, with enrollments averaging 59 percent.

A Cato Institute report, "12-Hour School Days: Why Government Should Leave After-School Arrangements to Parents," contends that self-care arrangements are highly individual, and therefore, "[defy] broad classification as a 'good' or 'bad' arrangement. … No studies have examined the long-term impact or the consequences of various self-care arrangements on children."

Gannett and Olsen also disagree on whether afterschool programs boost achievement. According to Gannett, today's programs offer much more than they did 20 or 30 years ago when the emphasis was strictly on supervision and care. "It's still about the fact that women are working," Gannett says. "But today people also see the afterschool hours as a real opportunity and a loss for those who don't go."

The best programs, Gannett says, provide a wide range of options, including lots of hands-on, thematic activities that build on children's areas of interest. "The beauty of the afterschool environment is you're not under the strict requirements and restraints of standards or under the gun of high-stakes tests," she says. "You have a lot of freedom to be more creative and take more time developing relationships with kids."

She cites research by University of Wisconsin scholars who found that the more time students spent in an afterschool program, the better their work habits and interpersonal skills. Other research has found a correlation between participation in afterschool programs and improved attendance, grades and test scores.

Olsen, however, citing a review of research on the effectiveness of afterschool programs by Olatokunbo Fashola at Johns Hopkins University, says the results of such studies are of limited use. "There is a clear consensus among experts in the field that the research on afterschool programs is riddled with methodological flaws and [that] the findings are inconsistent and inconclusive," she writes.

Fashola found the studies failed to meet "minimal standards of research design." In general, they evaluated programs that enrolled mostly middle-income, white students who were attending afterschool programs voluntarily. Olsen also notes that the studies produced inconclusive results. Only nine of the 33 programs examined proved to be effective or somewhat effective. "It's too soon to tell if afterschool programs benefit children," she says.

Quality vs. Quantity

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and an authority on the use of time in school, contends that it is not how much time children spend in school, but how they spend the time. He cautions educators to be wary of proposals to extend the school day. "Lengthening school time as it is now utilized might even lower achievement," Botstein wrote in a recent commentary in The New York Times.

When it comes to expanding school hours, says Botstein, "the reasons are more social than educational." Still, he credits New York Gov. George Pataki's call for extending the school day primarily with enrichment programs as "honest" in that it "does not pretend to offer a solution to poor academic performance."

There is a place for afterschool programming, he says. "Given the number of working parents and the absence of constructive alternatives in the late afternoon and early evening, afterschool programs focusing on the arts, sports, technology, community service and other activities would be an important and long overdue investment. And the benefits of such programs to the development of motivation, creativity and self-esteem are well-documented."

A Growing Movement

Meanwhile, the number of afterschool programs continues to grow. According to the National Governors' Association, at least 26 states are increasing funding for afterschool programs and opportunities. And at least 30 states report greater involvement from schools in extending learning during the afterschool hours. According to U.S. Department of Education, 63 percent of public schools offered extended-day programs in 1998, up from 13 percent in 1988.

One visible way the new afterschool programs differ from their counterparts of the past is that many are the result of partnerships between schools and local agencies, businesses and governmental agencies.

Boston Public Schools' afterschool initiative demonstrates the potential of such alliances. Launched at the direction of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino in 1998, the initiative depends on a network of more than 250 community-based organizations to help run school-based programs weekdays from 2 to 6 p.m. Last year, with the help of $10 million in city funding, almost 17,000 students participated in programs at about two-thirds of the city's elementary and middle schools. Last spring, a group of corporate and higher education partners, including Harvard University, pledged $23 million over the next five years to expand the effort.

Thomas Payzant, Boston's superintendent, says that although the initiative was designed to provide a balance of academic, enrichment and recreational activities, he and Menino see afterschool programming as a viable way of extending the school day.

"There is a clear expectation in our partnerships with out-of-school-time providers ... that a good program will have an academic piece that is aligned with the work we're doing in the classroom," he says. "We want to see a focus on teaching and learning, particularly in literacy and math, for those students who need extra time and support to meet high standards."

Federal Funding

Meanwhile, the Flagstaff, Ariz., school district, takes advantage of federal dollars through the U.S. Department of Education's 21st Century Community Learning Centers Initiative (see related story) to expand its afterschool offerings. About one-third of the district's approximately 11,500 students participate.

Superintendent Larry Bramblett says the effort began three years ago as a way of giving students something constructive to do between 3 and 6 p.m. each afternoon. "We soon demonstrated that a lot of kids had nowhere to go but home to an empty house," he says.

The new programs included homework clubs, tutoring and classes for remedial readers and students learning English as a second language. Enrichment activities included art, dance and music classes, computer instruction and a chess club.

The response from parents and students was positive. But school officials soon discovered that the extra hours gave them new opportunities as well. "We realized right away that we had more time to boost students' academic skills," Bramblett says. "And we were able to give some kids a chance to play an instrument, participate on a team or be involved in the arts for the first time."

In spite of everything schools are called on to do these days, the superintendent believes educators have an obligation to make better use of students' afterschool hours. "If our true mission is to educate kids, we should take every opportunity to do that," he says. "And when it comes down to using that time to improve kids' skills versus letting them sit at home watching TV, we have no choice but to take action."

Bramblett's advice to other superintendents interested in starting new afterschool programs or beefing up current offerings: Be committed to quality. "Kids won't go if the programs aren't good."

In the Wellington, Kan., Unified School District 353, $1.1 million from the 21st Century initiative over three years funds three afterschool centers at one elementary school, the middle school and the high school. Ronald Fagan, superintendent of the rural 1,900-student district south of Wichita, says more than 300 of the district's 1,400 elementary students take part in the program, which runs until 6:30 p.m. daily.

The high school center operates from 6:30 to 10 p.m., so as not to compete with afterschool athletics and clubs. Students have access to computers and can work with tutors, mostly district teachers, in an informal setting. "It's a much more relaxed atmosphere at night, which has helped cement the teachers' relationships with the kids," Fagan says. "It's also helped improve attendance and get grades up."

Fagan says he believes schools no longer have the luxury of being able to close their doors at the end of the traditional school day. "I think we're expected to be here to serve kids almost 24 hours a day," he says.

Priscilla Pardini is a free-lance education writer in Shorewood, Wis. E-mail: pardini@execpc.com