The number of children and adolescents without family supervision after school is increasing. Further, the once common notion that self-care led to greater maturity has been replaced with the knowledge that many “latchkey" children, home alone after school, may experience loneliness, fear, and worry. They also risk injury, victimisation, bad nutrition, and the negative impact of excessive television viewing. Adolescents who care for younger siblings may experience great stress and must forgo constructive after-school activities. Those who “hang out" with similarly aimless friends may join gangs or engage in premature sexual activity, drug and alcohol use, and other anti-social behaviour. Idle youth are particularly prone to many negative influences in urban areas.
Because studies show benefits for poor urban students who engage in planned after-school activities, a large number of such programs have been implemented. They range from small projects with a single purpose, such as raising reading abilities, to well-funded comprehensive programs. This article describes the creation and operation of the larger and more structured programs, but community groups that want to initiate small projects can incorporate relevant ideas and experiences into their own designs.
Schools frequently sponsor after-school programs since their own pupils need them. The advantages of school sponsorship include credibility, a continuity of care, and easy access to good resources. Also, programs in schools eliminate the need for children to travel to get to them, and parents do not have to go to two locations to participate in their children's education. The disadvantages include unexpected program cuts if the after-school program budget is tied to that of the school, and a perception by children that the program is merely an extension of the school day. Many community and religious organisations are also qualified to manage programs. A potential difficulty for non-school sponsors is the lack of a well-equipped site that is an easy commute from school and home. Ideally, the site has both educational and recreational resources, sufficient rest rooms, and a kitchen. Independent after-school programs sometimes rent school space since schools have the best facilities. Thus, they have some of the same advantages as a school operated program.
Programs can either be self-supporting through tuition paid by participants (possibly on a sliding scale) according to the activities and services they require; supported by grants and contracts, possibly by local welfare or community agencies; or funded through a combination of both. In poorer urban areas families usually pay nothing or only a very small fee. There may be local government agencies who offer funding for after-school programs. For example, anti-crime groups often support afternoon anti-gang activities, and special education agencies support some remedial education. It may be possible to combine special purpose funds from several agencies to create a full-service program. Local businesses and organisations may contribute, possibly with gifts in kind, such as sports equipment or even a site.
Program design and goals
Most after-school programs strive to be fun, challenging, and comforting. They are freer than schools to use innovative curricula and activities to promote children's learning. They can be flexible in tailoring children's time to their needs, have a better student/staff ratio, and benefit from multi-age groupings. Specific goals and activities vary, but, in general, most programs have the following goals:
To make available responsible and caring adults who offer support and guidance.
To foster the self-worth of each child and develop their self-care skills. For adolescents, to foster an age-appropriate sense of independence, and develop the ability to resist participation in premature sexual activity, substance use, and anti-social behaviour.
To develop the youth's personal and interpersonal social skills, and to promote appreciation of cultural diversity.
To reinforce school day learning by integrating personalised educational supports into each child's schedule.
To provide time and space for quiet study.
To provide educational enrichment activities and to spark youths' curiosity and love of learning.
To provide recreational and physical activities to develop physical skills and to constructively channel energy pent-up after a day sitting in a classroom.
To encourage participation in sports activities to help youth develop self-esteem and learn lessons about co-operation and conflict resolution.
To provide age-appropriate job readiness training.
To provide information about career and career training options, preferably through first-hand experiences with community business leaders and tours of local businesses.
Schools and districts that run an after-school program inform parents about it in the same way as they provide other information. Independent programs often forge a partnership with local schools to promote recruitment. Letters and announcements in local newspapers are simple recruitment tools. Leaflets can be supplied to local employers for dissemination; doing this may also spark program support.
Personal contact with parents is a more effective strategy, however. Some programs designate a staff member to serve as a “community representative" to speak personally to families about the importance of after-school activities. Religious leaders, physicians, and social service workers can also inform parents about programs. Programs frequently recruit adolescents directly. Many urban youth are anxious to have a safe place to go where they will receive personal attention. They are likely to respond to the attraction of good sports equipment and challenging recreational and educational activities.
Parent involvement in after-school programs is important. Even before they enroll their children, parents are asked what they want their children to learn, and what their children like to do. After the children begin attending, staff try to meet regularly with families, personally and in meetings. Staff help parents develop learning activities for their own children at home, provide information on parenting issues, and reinforce parents' experiences with their children's school. Also, communicating with parents of diverse backgrounds about their children's needs, and their child-rearing methods and expectations for their children, can prevent conflicts. It can also help staff better appreciate diversity.
Since the entire community feels the impact of youth self-care, establishing an advisory council that includes local leaders is useful. Council members with relevant skills can provide services the program would otherwise have to pay for: specialists in child development, curriculum, public relations, and fund raising. Community members can also serve as tutors, mentors, and speakers for special programs. Links with public health and social service agencies facilitate parents' use of them.
Each program usually has at least one director and several further staff members. The optimal staff/student ratio is one to 10 to 15 children. Staff can consist of trained teachers, school aides, college students, and community members. Some funders require staff to be properly qualified and to have completed special courses in child development, school-age care, or recreation. Bilingual staff can be helpful.
Other desirable staff qualities include the following:
Strong interpersonal, communication, and organisational skills.
Respect for and enjoyment of children.
Appreciation of children's individual needs, differences, and diversity.
Experience working with children the age of the participants.
Punctuality, reliability, patience, and flexibility.
A positive and optimistic outlook.
Most programs provide initial staff training that covers the developmental needs of children at different ages, cultural sensitivity, creation and oversight of activities, and effective communication with parents. Programs also supply ongoing feedback, evaluation, and support.
Studies of the impact of after-school programs on poor children have shown positive effects. Developing a way to evaluate the effectiveness of a program will help ensure that children are benefiting and that improvements are made. Information can include enrollment, attendance, and dropout rates. Another useful evaluation method is a review of individual participants' performance and group experiences. Student portfolios, containing, for example, photographs, artwork, and writings, can provide information about each child's progress over time. Joint review of these materials by staff, families, and the participants themselves can enhance the children's self-esteem and allow for self-evaluation. Yet to be assessed, but important nevertheless, is the “prevention function" of the program: does it prevent low self-esteem, gang involvement, and school failure? Finally, the participants themselves can be asked how the program can be made more fun, since the better time they have the more they will learn.