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Three O’Clock Somewhere

Expanded Learning and Afterschool Project - DelVento - Davis

Post submitted by Cathy DelVento and Joe Davis

There's a massive Viking longhouse under construction in Winthrop, Mass., and its youngest architects are only 14 years old. Each afternoon—after school—students in the town of Winthrop expand their math skills as they draw plans and measure wood, social studies skills in recreating Viking food and clothing, computer skills as they plot the museum's layout, and language and leadership skills as they make Viking culture come alive for visitors.

Across the country, high-quality after-school programs are helping accelerate student achievement. And, because the programs are community-driven and tap into local expertise, resources and talent, no two programs are exactly alike. In Winthrop, for example, Viking scholars are treated to visits by area architects and engineers. At other after-school programs, participants are just as likely to have music executives or computer programmers as their guides and colleagues.

Any student can benefit from after-school programs—and students of all backgrounds can participate—but it's the students who need the most help that usually realize the biggest gains. One such student, Bobby, credits Winthrop's afterschool programs with helping him grow from an eight-year-old who was constantly getting into trouble into a middle school honor roll student who helps run the after-school program and wants to be a teacher. Bobby remembers that before becoming involved in the after-school program, he used to have nowhere to go when the last bell rang. Sadly, many children return to empty homes to watch television. Others just roam unsupervised.

Over the past two decades, increasing numbers of educators, parents, and community leaders have realized how crucial the hours beyond school are to a child's development. Today, more than 1 million children participate in after-school and summer learning activities funded through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers federal program. For communities, this implies affordable and sustainable approaches to expanding the benefits of education. For students, when a 21st Century program is done right, it is often the best thing in their life.

Having seen firsthand how dramatically children's lives and outlook can be improved both inside and outside the classroom, it is gratifying that new research confirms the tremendous value of after-school programs. A new report (PDF) from Joseph A. Durlak of Loyola University Chicago and Roger P. Weissberg of the University of Illinois at Chicago ties high quality after-school programs to a 12 percent decrease in problem behaviors and a 7 percent decrease in drug use (infographic PDF). It also ties the programs to a 6 percent increase in attendance, an 8 percent increase in standardized test scores, and a 9 percent increase in grades. This research is more extensive than any previously released, and it draws on an in-depth analysis of more than 60 previous studies.

We became supporters of the Expanded Learning and Afterschool Project because we believe in giving communities in every state the tools, research, and technical support they need to help their children and youth succeed. High-quality after-school programs succeed because they are fun, engaging, and memorable. Take the students in the Viking Longship Project. They are far too busy playing Viking to realize that they're expanding their academic, social, and life skills. And, more important, such programs succeed because their activities are intentionally designed to relate to academic principles. If students in Florida build robots, they do so with the goal of solving tasks and practicing engineering concepts. If they have an opportunity to work with animals, they should identify biological principles. Obviously it takes time to create high-quality daily lesson plans in an after-school program, but these are exactly the programs that students embrace and that accelerate their achievement.

Imagine for a moment that children could not get enough of vegetables—the very thing that greatly helps their development. That is why the unveiling of conclusive research showing how high-quality after-school programs accelerate student achievement is so exciting—because the activities children love also improve their attendance, behavior, grades, and test scores.

In difficult financial times, after-school programs are praised for being affordable and sustainable, and surely a much less expensive option than the juvenile justice system. But for children like Bobby, these programs represent much more than a way to stay out of trouble or to catch up academically. When Bobby was initially recruited by the after-school program, he was still adjusting to a foster home and was spending most of his time during the day trying to get thrown out of school. The after-school program won Bobby over by working hard to give him a place where he actually felt needed. Every child deserves such a place.

Joe Davis is the chief operating officer of the Florida Afterschool Network. Cathy DelVento is the program coordinator of the 21st Center Community Learning Center Program. Both serve as spokespeople for the Expanded Learning and Afterschool Project. The name of the student in the article was changed.

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