The Unique Power of Afterschool Learning

Education in this country is often the subject of loud and rancorous debate. It is one, however, that most frequently concerns what happens during school hours. But academic and non-academic learning and development don’t stop once the last bell of the day rings. In fact, as any good educator knows, even when a school day is executed perfectly, students will still struggle if they’re not receiving the support they need in the wider community and at home.

Afterschool programs are an important and impactful way to address this issue, as they have the potential to continue and even broaden learning while busy parents complete their workdays. Still, though tossing kids into the cafeteria with some Goldfish Crackers will keep them out of any immediate danger, this is not the kind of approach that will radically affect a student’s future. What, then, does a good afterschool program look like, and what can it do for students – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds? Let’s take a look.

Afterschool Learning Image

Image courtesy of Golden Opportunity by photographer Dave Burbank

The Potential of a Good Afterschool Program

A thoughtfully run afterschool program can change student outcomes in a number of ways. They can:

1. Develop non-academic skills

Book smarts are great, but we all know that there are many different aspects of a student’s development that will contribute to his or her success. Learning social and emotional skills, for instance, will help a student thrive in personal relationships, the workplace, and oh yes, school, too. Extracurricular activities can broaden a student’s awareness of the world, and provide much needed opportunity to develop their creative minds and healthy physical habits. For older students, spending time in afterschool vocational programs can teach a set of skills for a career in a trade. If a student is not particularly academically-oriented, a good afterschool program can provide opportunities for that student to succeed in other contexts, thereby building confidence and widening a student’s conception of what they can do.

Altogether, taking the time to develop non-academic skills will help students become a successful member of their community and within their families. Additionally, by focusing on non-academic skills, students will gain the broad spectrum of competencies that will help them thrive within school walls, too. And while all of these skills are important to work on in the classroom as well, concentrating on building them specifically after school will take pressure off of busy, time-strapped teachers from trying to weave these lessons throughout the packed school day.

2. Provide individualized academic help

All of that said, for students who do need academic help, afterschool programs can be a lifeline. This is all the more true for students from low-income backgrounds, who cannot afford the same private tutoring and coaching as many of their counterparts. Afterschool programs can provide this one-on-one instruction, whether in specific subject areas, or on more general academic skills, like study skills, planning out work, and how to ask teachers for more help. Most students – even high achievers – benefit from one-on-one attention like this, as it gives them an opportunity to pinpoint their unique problem areas, while also having their tutor teach through the customized lens of what they do uniquely well.

3. Give children a confidante and an advocate

For a multitude of reasons, many of today’s students do not have a steady parental force at home to help them navigate the choppy waters of school and youth. But whereas in high-income communities, students are at least likely to be provided with help from other trusted adults, this is often just not in the cards for many families within low-income communities. Not having a confidante to come home to and process the day with, or a trusted adult who has the energy and the time to advocate for them during parent-teacher meetings or even to cheer them on at sporting events can have an impact that is both deep and broad.

Afterschool programs can powerfully address this problem by providing mentors and counselors who can check-in with students throughout the school year and even throughout their academic careers. With this kind of accountability and regularity of support, students will be more likely to push themselves to take the kinds of risks they need to in order to thrive, knowing that they have a support network to fall back onto.

4. Give students an engaging post-school experience

With their boundless energy and hungry minds, students will inevitably find a way to occupy themselves once school is done. Afterschool programs can provide a safe and engaging alternative to riskier options. In fact, as articulated in this excellent Washington Post op-ed, Why Strong Afterschool Programs Matter, students who attend afterschool programs are less likely to join gangs, experience violence (either as victims or as perpetrators thereof), or become teen parents. Further research also indicates that afterschool students are more likely to come to school in the first place, stay there, and hand in their homework.

One might think this is all due simply to having an alternative to the streets to turn to post-school, and there is some truth to this. But the truly impactful results stem from programs that provide engaging, exciting, and creative opportunities for students outside of the increasingly test-obsessed school day. In fact, with the right afterschool program, students may spend the whole day looking forward to the experiences they know they have to look forward to after the bell rings.

5. Offer healthy options

Childhood obesity is a growing reality in our country. A good afterschool program will provide healthy meals a student may not have access to at home, as well as opportunities for exercise.

6. Level the playing field

We’ve already discussed a number of ways in which students from disadvantaged background lack in support resources, including individualized academic coaching and oftentimes the presence of an adult confidante and advocate. This gap is present throughout every aspect of a student’s life, including enriching extracurricular activities and sports, as these students often lack the financial resources and the opportunity to participate. No matter what aspect of a student’s life we’re focusing on, afterschool programs help to level the playing field, making it more likely that all students receive equitable opportunity.

Afterschool Programs That Get It Right

Fortunately, these issues have gained a greater share of the spotlight in recent years, and there are now numerous programs across the country that are doing great things with afterschool programming. These programs are excellent in their own right, but also make for great model for other communities, or even to scale at a national level. Let’s take a look at two such programs.

WINGS for Kids

Since its founding in 1996, the Charleston-based WINGS for Kids is one of the only educational nonprofits in the United States to focus purely on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) for a K – 5 Title I population. The program has thirty learning objectives, which fall under five core competency areas of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Each session is three hours, and students attend the program five days a week.

When I asked Bridget Laird, Chief Executive Officer of WINGS, why there was a need for such an organization, she told me that when the program was founded, most people felt that there actually wasn’t a need for such an organization.

Says Laird: “The mentality was: who cares about how students feel about themselves if they can’t read and write? Research, however, has since shown that students are more successful academically when they develop their emotional skills.”

A typical week for a WINGS student will begin when they’re given a specific objective, like learning how to limit distractions. On any given day that week, the child will move naturally through the regular WINGS activities, such as spending community time in their assigned “nest,” playing a game like trying not to laugh before the other students, engaging in extracurricular activities, and working on homework in the academic center. As the student goes about his or her time at WINGS, mentors (known as WINGSLeaders) will capitalize on teachable moments and drive that week’s lesson home by asking questions like: How can you focus in this noisy room? How can you block out the other kids?

With four programs in Charleston, one in rural Lake City, SC, four in Atlanta, GA, and one in Charlotte, NC, WINGS serves 1500 students every day. The ultimate hope of the organization is to spread Social and Emotional Learning from the afterschool program into the school day and home, to help students thrive wherever they go.

You can learn more about or support this excellent organization by watching the video below:

Golden Opportunity

Founded in 2005 in Ithaca, NY by veteran educator, Marty Kaminsky, the organization Golden Opportunity pairs experienced retired teachers with students in grades 2 through 8 for mentoring and tutoring. Tutors meet with students for 2 hours each week for 30 weeks per year to work one-on-one. Unlike most similar programs, student and tutor pairs stay together year after year, to foster deep relationships. In fact, the average time spent together is four years.

The organization was founded with a mission to provide low-income students with the kind of in-depth, individualized attention and advocacy they require to empower them in every aspect of their lives. Tutors and students often form tight bonds, with tutors often volunteering outside of the program to attend student performances and parent-teacher meetings when the parent cannot, so that the student always have a consistent advocate. Students benefit from specialized academic attention, and more generally from feeling like there is an adult in their lives who believes in them and to whom they can turn in times of need.

“Every child deserves a chance to succeed,” says the organization’s founder, Marty Kaminsky. “Who is to say where that genius violinist, jazz drummer, brain scientist, computer scientist, or the next president of the United States resides? Just because a child is born into an impoverished family, does not mean that or she does not deserve the same opportunities of a child born into a middle or upper middle class family.”

Tutors receive curriculum training throughout the year in math, reading, and writing to keep them up to date with the latest educational trends. For their part, the retired teacher tutors thrill in getting to teach in that intensive manner that is so often an impossibility in the classroom. Finally, they can customize their approach and experiment with different strategies without keeping their eye on the clock or rotating to another set of students who urgently needs them, too.

In the ten years since the organization’s founding, numerous students have graduated the program and gone on to do well in high school, especially compared to cohorts who do not participate in the program. As such, Golden Opportunity offers confirmation of the academic research, which indicates that a student’s environment and the amount of support he or she receives is crucial in achieving success.

In Short

The cry to push education towards a “whole child approach” is more than just a trend; instead, it should be considered the only appropriate way to educate our children. Afterschool programs, as well as early education programs, are key to bettering student outcomes – and when that happens, our society improves as a whole.

1 Comment

  1. Frank

    August 31, 2015 at 10:28 pm

    After school training helps the child to develop a healthy outlook towards his/her life and understand better where to channelise their energy. It is essential and also very educative. It provides the child with an all round outlook.