Give P’s a Chance

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Written by Jane Quinn, Originally published in Youth Today Newspaper

Despite several glaring problems, the recent Mathematica Policy Research study reporting first-year findings from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program contains some important lessons for after-school and youth development practitioners.

While the challenges embedded in these lessons hardly constitute a news flash – having already been consistently identified in the best-practice literature – the Mathematica study (“When Schools Stay Open Late”) shines an important spotlight on what might be called the three P’s: program quality, participation and partnership.

Caveats first, then analysis: Youth Today (March 2003) has effectively examined the controversies surrounding Mathematica’s report. These controversies include applying rigorous evaluation methods to a new program, in violation of generally accepted norms of evaluation protocol (the maxim “Evaluate no program until it is proud” comes to mind), and downplaying positive findings, such as increases in parental involvement and academic and behavioral gains for black and Hispanic middle-grade students.

These shortcomings are not trivial. Nonetheless, practitioners should give the report serious attention – not overreacting to its negative findings, as the Bush administration did by rushing to propose drastic funding cuts, but recognizing that the data offer signposts that are consistent with the large and growing body of knowledge on after-school programs.

Program quality: The programmatic portrait in the Mathematica report is largely one of lost opportunity. The programs that were studied emphasized academic support and remediation, especially homework help, test preparation and tutoring. The homework sessions often did not provide much actual assistance or even encourage homework completion. Youths frequently had little opportunity to select which activities they would participate in, and many programs required youths to attend homework sessions, test preparation and tutoring before they could participate in recreational, social or cultural activities.

There is little description of these other activities, so it is difficult to assess their quality. Given the plodding approach of the academic support component, it is likely that they did not offer the kind of enrichment that characterizes best practice in after-school programming. There was little mention of academic enrichment, such as book clubs, chess clubs, poetry slams or theater productions. Computer use appeared to focus on computer-aided instruction rather than more engaging options, such as creating a school newspaper on Print Shop or learning to make PowerPoint presentations.

In sum, these early programs offered fairly traditional activities that extended and mirrored the regular school day, in contrast to the “best practice” approaches recommended by the National Institute on Out-of-School Time and the National School-Age Care Alliance, which emphasize balance, choice and exposure to new ideas.

Participation: Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that the evaluation team found low levels of attendance in the programs – on average, 58 days per year for elementary-age children and 32 days for middle-school youth. Non-participants offered several reasons for not attending, including lack of interest in the activities available and a perception that the programs were “mostly a place kids go when their parents are at work” or “just for kids who need help in school.”

In contrast, high-quality programs generate regular participation and solid results. For example, the June 2000 report on LA’s BEST (“A Decade of Results”) found that higher levels of participation in after-school enrichment programs led to better school attendance, which in turn related to higher achievement on standardized tests in core academic subjects.

Partnership: Although the grant guidelines encouraged partnerships between schools and community-based agencies, most programs did not collaborate much with other organizations and were staffed primarily by school-day teachers. They accounted for one-third of the program coordinators and three out of five program staff members. Schools contracted with community-based organizations to provide specific after-school activities rather than forging genuine partnerships that involve joint planning and implementation.

These are solvable problems, and several of the recent changes in the 21st Century program will begin to address them. For example, school-community partnerships are now required, not simply encouraged.

But the deep (40 percent) cuts proposed by the Bush administration for 2004 threaten to derail these improvements immediately. Now is the time to fight back. Youth workers across the country should join forces with the AfterSchool Alliance and other advocates to support full funding of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program.

Our rallying cry? “Give P’s a Chance.”

Jane Quinn is Vice President for Community Schools and Director of the National Center for Community Schools at The Children’s Aid Society in New York City. Contact: janeq@childrensaidsociety.org.