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Posted at 1:24 PM ET, 10/21/2010

Afterschool programs in funding jeopardy

By Valerie Strauss

This open letter was written by Jodi Grant, executive director of the nonprofit Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit organization that works to ensure that all children have access to affordable, quality afterschool programs.

Grant writes about the danger that afterschool programs now face because of a move to shift federal money currently spent on these programs to extend the school day. That may seem like sound policy, but it isn't. Research doesn't support the notion that kids automatically learn more if they sit longer in a classroom each day. Quality after school programs that engage kids in learning in ways different from the regular classroom experience have been shown to work wonders.

By Jodi Grant
Today, more than 7,500 communities across America will celebrate the afterschool programs that keep kids safe, inspire them to learn and help working families. Afterschool programs are an innovative, yet practical and proven way to expand and extend learning opportunities in a manner that is targeted to individual students, before school, after school and through summer learning programs.

While we celebrate today, we are in grave danger of having the lights turned off because of a proposal to use federal afterschool dollars to pay for mandatory extensions of the school day – a proposal put forth by the Obama Administration and modeled roughly after the Massachusetts Expanded Learning Time (ELT) initiative.

Based on costs associated with the Massachusetts ELT initiative, for each school that eliminates its afterschool program and instead uses 21st Century Community Learning Centers(21st CCLC) funding to extend the school day to 3:30 or 4 pm, six other communities with afterschool and summer learning programs supported by 21st CCLC will lose funding and be left with no expanded learning opportunities for kids. Children and families in those communities will have nowhere to turn, and afterschool program jobs will be lost.

The 21st CCLC currently supports 10,339 afterschool sites nationwide, but would support just 1,548 schools to extend their school day. That means federal support to provide expanded learning opportunities in nearly 9,000 communities is at risk.

For this reason, it is more important than ever that we use Lights On Afterschool to shine a light on the inspired, engaged and innovative learning that occurs after the school day ends and before parents get home from work.

Today’s afterschool programs have moved far beyond the mission to keep kids safe. Today, afterschool programs are at the forefront of educational innovation – creating school, community and faith based partnerships to bring resources, caring adults and exciting curricula to children in the hours after school.

Because programs are voluntary, children have to want to come, so engagement and motivation are paramount. Whether students are building solar-powered box cars, providing services to the elderly, or developing a computer program to record their own songs, afterschool programs are a place where students learn through fun, hands-on, engaging activities.

A growing research base shows that quality afterschool programs work. Students in afterschool programs are more likely to come to school, stay in school and graduate. They show improvement on engagement as well as academic, behavioral and professional skills.

Ironically, the data to support an extension of the school day is far from clear, with little or no evidence to show that lengthening the school day alone has a significant impact on student achievement. We can, in fact, we must be more creative in expanding learning time for kids. We have innovative approaches that work. Let’s apply them.

It’s important to take this day to celebrate the wonderful things happening in afterschool programs across the country. We should remember – today and every day – that more than 15 million children are unsupervised after school. Research suggests that these children are more likely to be victims or perpetrators of crime, to use drugs or alcohol and to engage in sexual activity.

We need to be doing more with afterschool programs, not less. President Obama campaigned with a promise to double funding for afterschool programs and create a new funding stream so that one million more children could attend summer learning programs.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan consistently highlights the value of school/community partnerships in bringing resources to help children succeed in school and prepare for the 21st Century workforce. The secretary often names individual students whose lives were changed by his mother’s afterschool program.

That’s why it’s so disappointing that the policy proposals coming from the administration – and supported by the Senate Appropriations Committee – would undermine the very programs the president and the secretary of education say they support.

So as you celebrate Lights On Afterschool, make sure to raise your voice. Let everyone in your community know the impact you are having on children’s lives and the many ways you are supporting families. Brag a little about the value of your work. Invite your elected officials to come see it. Send a letter to the president. Sign the petition to save afterschool funds. Now is the time to remind everyone about how important it is to keep the lights on afterschool for all our kids.

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By Valerie Strauss  | October 21, 2010; 1:24 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Learning  | Tags:  afterschool alliance, afterschool funds, afterschool programs, arne duncan, extending school day, lights on afterschool, longer school day, president obama, quality afterschool, school reform, student achievement  
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