There’s some good education news: As students, parents, and educators work to make up for setbacks caused by virtual learning and the COVID-19 pandemic, extra academic help is getting to students who need it
More than half — 56% — of public schools in the United States reported offering after-school programs for students in need of academic assistance during the 2022-2023 school year, according to a recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Overall, this is exciting, says Jodi Grant, the executive director of Afterschool Alliance. It shows that resources are going to communities that need them, mostly those hit hardest by the pandemic.
When it comes to students seeking academic assistance, as opposed to those who need or might have been required to do it, the programs drop to serving 44% of students.
“The demand is so high,” Grant says. “We know that, prior to COVID, we weren’t reaching enough kids, so now we have this opportunity to really reach more of them in a way that we can sustain.”
Academic Support — And So Much More
Expanding after-school programs brings so many benefits to students and families. Of course, there are the obvious academic benefits, which are why the programs exist in the first place. But beyond that, “parents, teachers, and students, they’re concerned not just about academic losses, but all sorts of non-academic losses,” Grant says.
Those losses include professional skills, interactions with other kids, and regularly communicating with mentors and caring adults. after-school can provide all of that, Grant says.
“It can provide academic support, but it can also provide a safe place where kids can explore their passions and really feel safe to be who they are and enjoy a variety of enrichment,” Grant says.”
There’s evidence that a holistic approach — which includes all of these aspects — leads to better academic outcomes. Plus, Grant says, kids in after-school programs are more likely to go to school.
“It’s done at a time where kids can, ideally, be in a more flexible, individualized setting where they can build skills and maybe not even realize that they’re doing academics. We want them to have fun,” Grant says. “I need to flat out say that kids should be having fun, particularly after COVID.”
Reaching Black Students
Even with the caveat that schools are the ones reporting access to these programs, there’s still good news: The majority of schools with more than 75% minority students say they offer after-school programs for students who both need (70%) and seek (63%) additional academic assistance, which is more than the average for all public schools. The same was true for schools with higher rates of poverty.
And about half of schools, regardless of student demographics, offer what experts in the field call “high-dosage” programs, meaning the sessions are one-on-one or in small groups.
However, a setback with this data is that it does not offer breakdowns of access for each demographic, just the blanket term “minority.”
Equitable distribution among kids of color is common for after-school programs funded by federal, state, or philanthropic dollars, Grant says. But the problem is that there’s higher demand, and we still have a long way to go to meet that demand.
“The good news is those are the kids that need this support,” Grant says. “Our concern is that a lot of schools are either not using the funds they’re getting, or they say they’re doing after-school or summer learning or even enrichment, but they’re not actually doing what we think is comprehensive enrichment with community partners that we would say is the gold standard for serving kids.”
More Programs, Fewer Barriers
Previous surveys by Afterschool Alliance asked parents what keeps them from enrolling their children in after-school programs.
Among Black parents, expense and inconvenient locations are the top barriers to entry for enrolling their children in after-school programs, an August 2022 Afterschool Alliance report found. In the survey responses, 60% of Black parents said the programs were not in convenient locations, 58% said their children didn’t have safe transportation to or from the program, and 52% said the programs were too expensive.
These programs are helping to remove some of the barriers.
In terms of locations, when the program takes place at the school, it’s where the students already are, eliminating a piece of transportation, and the school is likely located in a central place in the community. And Grant visited a program in a primarily Hispanic community that used its funding to bus students to the programs that weren’t located in the school building.
“It’s a question of looking at local communities and trying to really think through what’s easiest for parents,” Grant says. “Partnerships — like with libraries and community centers — can help facilitate that.”
Will These Programs Last?
These programs were largely made possible by funds from the American Rescue Plan, which pumped an estimated $26 billion into education and child care. So while the funds helped get these programs started, the end of those funds shouldn’t mean the end of the programs. Between federal, state, and local funding, the programs should stay afloat, Grant says.
Many states are starting to step up. California and Vermont are talking about “after-school for all,” and the mayor of Washington, D.C., announced she wants to have free programs available both before and after-school.
Having the programs is the first step, but it’s important to ensure they’re effective. Homework help or summer school aren’t holistic approaches, and they’re not fun, Grant says. The most effective forms of expanded learning are fun activities with an academic component.
The focus should be on ensuring school districts partner with other community actors to create a network of resources for kids and programs that have more buy-in so they’re sustained after losing ARP funding.
“We absolutely should be thinking about after-school and summer learning programs all the time,” Grant says. “I truly believe that if we do this right, then communities will not let these programs go.”