“School over already?!”
That’s a question that Black parents and caregivers have jokingly asked for generations, whether it’s the first day of summer, as hundreds of kids run out of the building to meet the June sun, or 3 in the afternoon as students pour out of last period.
The latest research on the benefits of summer enrichment programs and afterschool opportunities proves how much students, particularly Black students, need to be submerged in programs that fill the idle time of summer vacation and after school hours.
Whether it’s providing homework help or developing fun activities, afterschool programs offer additional support that is crucial to the success of students. Ensuring community members understand this is why Afterschool Alliance, a national nonprofit focused on equal access to afterschool programs, hosts its annual Lights on Afterschool celebration.
Spotlighting What Happens Afterschool
First organized in 2000, Lights on Afterschool is the only nationwide event celebrating afterschool programs, the families they serve, and the important role they play in students’ lives. Every October, the celebration is designed to draw attention to opportunities students are offered in these programs, such as learning Taekwondo, STEAM, robotics, and even poetry.
Jen Rinehart, senior vice president for strategy and programs at Afterschool Alliance, tells Word In Black there are inequities throughout the K-12 education space, but highlighting the discrepancies and achievements in afterschool programs is equally important.
Lights on Afterschool “started out as a small celebration — a couple of thousand programs that we knew, and getting some folks to organize events, and to invite the media, and to invite policymakers to come to those events, to learn more about what was happening in their program,” Rinehart says. “It’s growing awareness of the importance, and it’s growing demand for families.”
Amplifying Student Voices
The Lights on Afterschool events across the nation also serve as a way for local leaders and policymakers to hear directly from the students about the impact their after school programs have on them.
“It’s an opportunity to hear personally from the young people, and also from the providers who are working in this space, and to hear those individuals’ stories of ‘what a difference it’s made for them,’” Rinehart says.
Rinehart says part of the challenge afterschool enrichment programs face is making sure students show up and are engaged — particularly in a world where technology, social media, and other entertainment options provide numerous distractions.
But she says young people frequently talk “about how important the connections and the sense of belonging were in their programs, and when you hear that you can kind of feel it yourself.”
“We have a whole youth voice initiative that we started, where we have a group of youth ambassadors that are all across the country, who talk about their programs,” Rinehart says. Students involved in the Lights On events also get to write op-eds, interview with the media, speak directly to U.S. Department of Education officials, and even lobby members of Congress about the importance of their programs.
Ensuring Afterschool Program Support
A recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that more than half — 56% — of public schools reported offering afterschool programs for students in need of academic assistance during the 2022-2023 school year.
With the increase of afterschool programs, students are offered much needed academic support and also given the opportunity to develop non-academic talents, including professional, social, and emotional skills through interacting with other kids.
Rinehart explains in the early 21st century there was a rapid growth in afterschool awareness, and funding, but the methods to keep numbers growing have changed.
“We found really rapid growth in funding because people really did see the need and the opportunity there, but then we kind of reached a plateau,” she says. “We’ve been looking at potential other sources of funding, and some states have really been successful in coming up with public funds for afterschool and summer.”
Lack of funding and staffing may contribute to inadequate supply of afterschool programs, but according to Rinehart, districts have gotten creative in finding revenue to finance the programs.
Rinehart cites school districts using unclaimed lottery revenue and adult cannabis legalization funds as examples. “Not that anyone in the after school community is pro legalization, but we’re pro use the money for youth prevention programs if you are going to legalize.”
States like Colorado, Nevada, and Oregon include language in marijuana initiatives ensuring a portion of the tax revenue is allocated to education, including the construction of public schools. Other states, like Washington, allocate funding for programs focused on preventing substance abuse among teens.
Several school districts also use some of their COVID-19 relief dollars to support their after school and summer programs.
Another win for Afterschool Alliances? Rinehart says she recently heard about a state senator who’s attending a Lights On event, and then thinking about introducing legislation to start a public funding stream.