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Why Do After-School Programs Matter?

There are long-standing myths about after-school programs. Before writing your next story, dive into what the research says. Get tips for finding research and insight into program providers’ data-gathering methods.

Editor’s note: This resource was updated with additional research on April 10, 2024.

Photo credit: SK Studio/Bigstock

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After-school programs aren’t just waiting rooms for children before parents and caregivers roll through the school pickup line.

It’s a longstanding myth that programs are just “glorified babysitting,” one that journalists should seek to disprove in their reporting, said Stacy Frazier, a Florida International University professor who researches after-school programs, also referred to as out-of-school time programs.

“Babysitting really diminishes the very meaningful role that these adults play in the lives of these kids,” Frazier said.

Frazier, and other after-school advocates, point to a vast body of research that shows the benefits and complexities of programs that serve elementary, middle and high school-aged students outside of school hours. But if you’re a local reporter, you might need to narrow that pool of research down, and you may want to find information specific to the programs you’re writing about.

Focus on the Research: What We Do and Don’t Know

Research on after-school programs is vast, and it focuses on a range of topics about how organizations serve children across the world. 

The research can be broken down into a few main buckets: 

Academic impact: The research on the academic benefits of after-school programs is mixed.

Some studies have shown that academic-related programs, such as after-school tutoring, have had a positive impact on assessment results for students enrolled in those programs. Research has also found that attendance improves after students attend these programs.

Meanwhile, other studies, including meta-analyses by the American Institutes for Research for the U.S. Department of Education in 2014 and another published by the National Institutes of Health in 2015, demonstrated other findings.

Increased learning time programs showed some positive effects on student outcomes, especially for students at risk of academic failure. But AIR researchers noted that in other studies, the academic impact was small and depended on programs using certified teachers.  Additionally, the NIH analysis discovered flaws with prior research and found a lack of evidence related to the effects of after-school programs on school attendance and the externalizing behaviors of at-risk youth.

Recently, The Hechinger Report’s Jill Barshay noted in Proof Points, her column on education research, to pay attention to after-school attendance, which can be spotty.

Behavioral and social-emotional impact: Behavioral outcomes in and out of school is also a common research topic, according to Jen Rinehart, senior vice president for strategy and programs at the Afterschool Alliance. She said studies investigated whether after-school programs affect the frequency of risky behaviors, such as drug use.

Research has also found that the hours after school ends are some of the most common times when children can become either the victims or perpetrators of crime, and communities with strong after-school programs see less criminal activity, Rinehart said.

Reporters can synthesize what’s happening in their communities, such as a rash of after-school killings in Chicago reported by WBEZ in 2023, to analyze a lack of or underutilized prevention measures in their communities.

Staffing and hiring: Frazier said her work has focused on the obstacles of hiring and supporting staff in after-school programs. While some organizations do lean on teachers seeking additional income, Frazier said the industry by its nature relies on part-time workers with competing priorities who don’t always have the time to train.

June Muto is regional network lead for Wayne M.O.S.T., an organization in rural western New York that works with school districts in high-poverty areas to maximize out-of-school-time programs for kids. Muto said staffing her organization’s programs has been particularly challenging following the coronavirus pandemic, with some teachers feeling too overwhelmed to work an additional three hours after a busy school day.

Journalists who want to dive into research on after-school programs can start at the Afterschool Alliance’s impact database, which helps narrow down a vast body of research.

Additionally, research shows that not all programs are made equally, nor is every finding up-to-date. Journalists should be careful to check for updates in data and study findings.

For example, the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2017 found the U.S. Department of Education should improve its oversight of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, a federally funded program that sponsors after-school and summer academic learning centers. The department followed those recommendations, according to GAO monitoring. It found, as recently as 2020, that the department revised how it measures success.

The 21st Century Community Learning Centers program is one of the main federal funding streams into after-school programming, Rinehart said. The Education Department posts performance data by state in the “reports” area of this page.

Data Collected by Out-of-School-Time Programs

It’s also important to understand a program’s impact by studying the data and information it gathered. 

Zakia Redd, a research scholar at the nonprofit research center Child Trends, is one of the authors of a February 2024 report done in conjunction with the Wallace Foundation about how out-of-school time programs collect and use data to understand impact. (Editor’s note: The Wallace Foundation is one of EWA’s sustaining funders.)  In a finding, Redd said programs tended to measure impact associated with the services they were offering.

“So a tutoring program would be looking at academic outcomes… teen programs focused on college prep by looking at changes in knowledge” in understanding the college-going process better, she said.

And across the board, Redd said, organizations are examining the social-emotional learning outcomes, regardless of program focus.

But data collection can also feel burdensome for organizations that might already be strapped for time and resources, she said.

“It’s important to make sure for programs and funders that data collection can be done in a way where you can get the information you need but not be overly burdensome,” she said. “Some programs have been able to raise funding to be able to hire internal research or data staff, but a number of programs don’t have those internal resources.”

Don’t Forget the Anecdotes

A well-rounded story about after-school programs shouldn’t leave out anecdotal moments of joy, learning and struggle children can experience.

Muto wants to give kids “a new experience, a new opportunity to see something,” she said.

Sometimes that means opening up a local theater, or giving children and parents a free bag of popcorn to build community engagement and support for an after-school framework.

Muto said Wayne M.O.S.T. organizes programs that encourage improved reading, STEM and other foundational skills. But they’re also just fun, prompting joy from children, such as one program in which students get to write their own plays.

“They’ll make props, and they’ll get their costumes together, and they will perform on the last day for parents and anybody else that they can get there,” she said. “And the kids just love it. They eat it right up.”

4 Story Ideas: After-School Programs 

  • State and federal grants: While 21st Century Community Learning Centers program grants make up a major portion of funding, it’s important to cover where money is going when states announce out-of-school time grants. Michigan and Iowa, for example, have recently announced after-school grant programs. Reporters should ask how the grant process works and how the state will measure success.
  • Staffing after-school programs: How have program staffing levels changed after the pandemic, and did the ability to hire improve after schools reopened
  • Utilization: Are your local after-school programs filled up with a waitlist, or are there numerous open spots to fill? Frazier said programs might present barriers to families if hours are inconvenient or if it’s difficult for students to physically get there.
  • Be on the lookout for upcoming research: Next year, 2025, will be big for after-school research, Rinehart said. That’s when the Afterschool Alliance will conduct a household survey, “America After 3 p.m.,” of American families about after-school program supply and demand. That data may inform reporters about lingering student needs.