Our Country Needs Many More Quality Afterschool Programs
One thing I’m grateful for during this season of thanksgiving is the peace of mind that comes from knowing that my two daughters are happy, healthy, safe and constructively engaged during the school day and, just as critically, in the hours afterward. My girls are lucky. They spend their afterschool hours building computers, participating in maker spaces, playing soccer and rehearsing for theater productions. They are safe, productive, and learning skills that are helping them becoming more confident, self-aware young women – all while I am still at work. I wish that for all moms – but granting that wish is one of the unmet challenges of our time.
This fall, the organization I lead commissioned a household survey of more than 30,000 families across the country. The Afterschool Alliance’s study found that the parents of more than 10 million children enrolled their kids in afterschool programs this year. That’s 57 percent more children and youth in afterschool programs today than in 2004. Certainly, that’s good news. Those children are safe and supervised – with access to homework help, mentors, hands-on science, sports and fitness activities, and much more – each afternoon.
But despite the significant increase in participation over the last decade, unmet demand for afterschool programs is surging. In our study, the parents of nearly 20 million children said they would enroll their child in an afterschool program if one were available. That means that for every child enrolled in an afterschool program, the parents of two more say they would enroll their children if a program were available to them.
That’s unacceptable. In fact, it’s shameful. Some parents are able to make other arrangements but many cannot and, across the country, 11 million school-age children are unsupervised after the school day ends. That includes 800,000 children in elementary school. Unmet demand for afterschool programs is especially high among low-income, African American and Hispanic families.
We can do better. Imagine how much stronger our country would be if more students received help with their homework after school instead of hitting the streets; if more youth had the chance to practice their favorite sport rather than coming home to an empty house to watch television or play video games; and if more students experimented with activities like robotics and rocketry after school instead of with sex, drugs, cigarettes and alcohol.
And imagine how grateful moms would be if they did.
Nearly 90 percent of parents say they are satisfied with their child’s afterschool program, according to our survey, America After 3PM. Parents appreciate these programs not only because they keep their children safe and out of trouble after the school day ends, but also because they keep them active and engaged, get them excited about learning, and prepare them for the workforce.
Afterschool programs offer a fantastic array of opportunities – everything from athletics to zoology. Around the country, programs in settings ranging from schools to rec centers to Boys and Girls Clubs and Ys offer enrichment activities, tutoring, mentoring, community gardens, civic engagement, and learning opportunities, including in science, technology, math and engineering (STEM), where study after study shows our country’s students are falling behind.
And here’s the whipped cream on top of this year’s pumpkin pie: On Nov. 17, for the first time in 18 long years, the U.S. Congress cleared legislation that will boost funding for child care, including programs that take place before and after school and during the summer months. The increase is some $400 million over six years. I’m deeply grateful for this unexpected bit of bipartisanship, and eager for President Obama to sign the bill into law, as he is expected to do.
But that’s only one step. When nearly 20 million parents say they would enroll their children if an afterschool program were available – when 11 million students in our country are unsupervised in the afternoons – we have a lot more work to do. We need government at all levels, the business and philanthropic communities, and others to come together and make afterschool programs available to all families that need them.
Quality afterschool programs are a lifeline for working families but, despite progress, there aren’t nearly enough to meet the need. We can, and we must, do better – for our kids and our country. On this issue, moms can lead the way.
Jodi Grant is executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, which is working to ensure that all children and youth have access to quality afterschool programs.