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With school back in session, kids and parents across the nation are settling back into their school-year schedules. For many, that means adjusting to school closing times that leave students unsupervised for hours each afternoon, until their parents return home from their jobs.

Afterschool programs offer a solution to that problem – and much more. These programs have a remarkable track record of keeping children and youth safe, inspiring them to learn and giving working parents the peace of mind that comes with knowing their children are engaged, learning and having fun during those afternoon hours. That’s why more than 10 million children are enrolled in afterschool programs across the country. Unfortunately, though, many communities don’t have nearly enough programs to meet the demand; research shows that for every child in an afterschool program in this country, two more are waiting to get in. Urging Congress to increase afterschool funding is one way to address that problem.

For families in search of a quality afterschool program, though, the Afterschool Alliance has developed two new publications that can help. And for parents whose communities don’t offer afterschool, there’s advice on how to get an afterschool program off the ground.

Finding the Right Afterschool Program for Your Family walks parents through questions they’ll want to ask and information they’ll want to evaluate before choosing a program. It urges parents of children in elementary school to find out if programs offer children the chance to read aloud and silently, and then to talk about books and ideas. It urges parents to find out about science and technology offerings, and whether children will apply arithmetic problems in real-world ways. Are kids encouraged to try experiences from different cultures and to play imaginatively? Does the program have opportunities for physical play that doesn’t emphasize competition? Does it offer music, dance and drama? Is there a chance for frequent interaction with adults? The answers to these and other questions are clues to the kind of experience elementary age children will have.

Parents of middle schoolers will want to find out if programs offer interaction in large and small groups. Do programs create opportunities for children to serve others in the community, engage in decision making and leadership, explore subjects in depth, get homework help, meet diverse professionals and be exposed to a variety of college and career paths?

When looking at high school afterschool programs, parents will want to consider whether children will have many of the same opportunities that are important to middle school students, but also a chance to earn or recover school credit, catch up or move ahead with particular academic interests, participate in research and internships in industry or at universities, discuss and address such physical risks as smoking, drugs, drinking and sexual activity, and more.

The second new publication, Looking for a Quality Afterschool Program, suggests ways to find out what programs are offered in the community. Ideas include using the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers database of grants and reaching out to the local affiliates of national organizations active in afterschool, including the YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs, 4-H, Girls, Inc. and others. Parents can also network to find a program by asking teachers, principals, parents, guardians, grandparents and others.

Parents who discover that their communities lack sufficient afterschool opportunities can try to change that by consulting with other parents, educators and neighbors to gauge their interest in helping start a new afterschool program. Parents might want to place a notice in the school’s parent bulletin, email parent listservs or raise the subject at a PTA meeting. If demand is high, the next step can be to see if school or other facilities might be made available, and then reach out to leaders of community-based organizations to see if they’d be interested in joining the effort.

Quality afterschool programs make a tremendously positive difference in the lives of children, helping prepare them to succeed in school and in life. Unfortunately, these programs can be hard to find, partly because the federal funding stream that helps support many programs is simply inadequate to meet demand. These new publications can help.

For a look at why parents value afterschool programs so dearly, view these video testimonials

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