Academics After-school Style

Informal, experiential approaches to learning, with flexibility built in, are ideal by Claudia Weisburd

Many adults today consider the hours after school to be an opportunity for students to squeeze in a little more help with schoolwork. For most children, though, that final bell rings freedom. The last thing they want is more school, and faced with an after-school program that looks like an extension of their school day, they’ll opt out.


But while young people, especially in the upper grades, want freedom from the confines of formal schooling, they do like to learn and for the most part would rather do well in school than fail. How can we provide the after-school academic support young people need without making it seem like an extension of school? How can we establish programs that young people walk to rather than run away from?

Programs that actively consider young people’s growth across social, emotional, physical and academic arenas are more likely to feel different from the school day. Successful school-based after-school programs address young people as developing adults, not solely as students, by blending academics with youth development skills such as independence, time management, leadership, decision making, teamwork and communication. They are learner-centered, complement the school setting and engender support of school administrators.

After-school programs are ideal for more informal, experiential approaches to learning. Schedules are more flexible, groups are smaller and the atmosphere is more relaxed. Academic and developmental objectives merge in well-designed hands-on projects and program activities.

Blending Approaches

It is easy to blend academics with project-based activities such as sports, arts and music. But how do you blend the “soft stuff” that keeps kids coming—the teamwork, social skills, leadership opportunities—with clearly academic programs such as homework help or skills remediation? The School District of Philadelphia invited New Jersey-based Foundations Inc., to do just that in the city’s 38 lowest-performing high schools.

Two Foundations-designed programs illustrate this blended approach: a program for 9th graders failing English and/or math and a homework program. The programs demonstrate the importance of a true partnership in creating effective after-school opportunities for the community’s young people. Foundations develops the school-based programs, provides professional development and supporting program manuals, provides student materials and manages operations. The schools recruit, hire and pay the teachers for their work in the program as well as for associated professional development time.

Before the launch, Foundations staff members meet with each school principal to coordinate operations. The principal typically designates an assistant principal as point person. Foundations site coordinators conduct a training session with all teachers and administrators, then visit and observe programs weekly or bi-weekly as needed to provide feedback and operational support.

On the Subject

The 9th grade after-school program, which operated during the 2002-2003 school year, focused on direct subject matter instruction. Because of the academic focus, attendance and retention would be a challenge. Low and erratic attendance is a hallmark of after-school programs at upper grades—especially in schools with poor daytime attendance. In addition, jobs, childcare, sports and other activities compete for the limited after-school time.

Working with district and school personnel, Foundations designed a program to address students’ academic needs and promote attendance with two incentives: academic credit and a student-centered academic project. Direct instruction focused on content knowledge and skills development using stand-alone lessons that did not require consecutive attendance to be beneficial. Students may earn credit based on results of periodic teacher-administered, in-program assessments and 85 percent attendance in the after-school program.

To help students maintain that attendance level, the program included an “RFP Project,” a component that required students to apply a range of math and English skills in a real-world scenario. Each after-school group received a Request for Proposals document. Just as community organizations apply for grant money by responding to a grantor’s Request for Proposals, this RFP gave students the chance to design and apply to Foundations for funds to support an end-of-program event.

The document explained the use of RFPs in fund raising, spelled out rules and deadlines and listed requirements such as a description, rationale, implementation plan and budget. The requested grant amount was determined by the program’s average daily attendance multiplied by $10. Therefore, groups needed to predict their average daily attendance to prepare a budget and then maintain that level of attendance to ensure adequate funds.

Because we were working with low-performing students in low-performing schools, we anticipated a ragged response. Instead, proposals came in complete and on time from all 38 participating schools. Proposed activities ranged from a tour of the University of Pennsylvania to movies, trophies, pizza parties, parent nights, charity donations, performances and buffets. One group simply wanted the money, dividing the grant proportional to attendance, complete with supporting spreadsheet. In the end, students developed an idea together, followed rules, worked with standards-based English and math, met a deadline and found success.

Grades, homework and study skills improved. Eighty-two percent of the school-day math and English teachers saw improvement in basic skills, homework completion and work habits among participating students. Sixty percent of participants met attendance and performance levels and received credit.

Homework Zone

Students want to succeed. They feel good about working hard to do better. Foundations took that message to heart when developing the high school Homework Zone program, which was launched during the 2003-04 school year. The Homework Zone acknowledges that while most students want to do well, many do not have the space, materials or support to do homework at home. The program also recognizes the need to build high school students’ independent learning skills, which are essential for success in college and in the world of work.

The Homework Zone rethinks homework time, shifting from the traditional idea of study hall to an active space that promotes and accommodates different kinds of learning. Students work together in a relaxed setting, able to move around and work in groups. The sole goal of the program is not homework completion. Instead, the program promotes development of independent learning skills such as time and task management, research skills, study skills and teamwork. Reading and writing strategies are also taught and reinforced.

Students do homework, study for tests, do research, give help and get help. Some cluster in groups, others work alone at computers, with a peer tutor, teacher or friend. Some practice English by doing word games and puzzles, working on research papers or reading independently. Others socialize around games like Uno, chess or dominos. Optional 20-minute, teacher-led clinics help students brush up on reading and test-taking skills.

The Homework Zone is a drop-in program so students can come and go as their schedule permits. Students log their work, marking accomplishments and indicating whether they think they would benefit from additional review. The logs are given to the designated school administrator or are posted in teacher lounges or by mailboxes, providing class teachers with information about what students mastered and where they believe they need additional help. A card-stamping system, similar to coffee-shop debit cards, tracks attendance and gives regular attendees a chance for small prizes in monthly drawings.

In the first six months of operation in 20 schools, the Homework Zone was used over 28,000 times. Contrary to the belief that attendance would fall dramatically after spring testing, attendance remained the same or increased in May in more than half the schools. Classroom teachers reported improved student behavior, attitude, homework completion and grades for those students who attended the program.

Eighty-nine percent of classroom teachers believed their students learned where to get help, 83 percent reported students completed more assignments and 82 percent said students improved their work habits. One teacher wrote, “Our students have improved their homework assignments; some ask for more homework to do.” Another reported, “Students indicated that they were more confident taking tests after going to the Homework Zone.”

Ninety-four percent of students surveyed reported that the after-school program helped them with school. One student stated, “The Homework Zone gave me a safe place to go after school where I can work on my assignments and projects and I also get a chance to meet other students in my school.”

Crucial Support

Effective after-school programs—those that students look forward to attending—require strong partnerships among program planners, staff members, students, teachers, parents, school administrators and community partners.

The vision and collaboration of the School District of Philadelphia was essential to the success of the two Foundation-developed programs. In both programs, differences in participation levels across schools could be directly attributed to the level of involvement by the school leaders. Where school building administrators promoted the program and maintained open communication, programs ran much more smoothly and enjoyed higher participation.

Claudia Weisburd is executive director of after-school and community education at Foundations Inc., 2 Executive Drive, Moorestown, NJ 08057. E-mail: cweisburd@foundationsinc.org