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Working for Children and Families:
Safe and Smart After-School Programs
Today, millions of children return to an empty home after school. When the school bell rings, the anxiety
for parents often just begins. They worry about whether their children are safe, whether they are
susceptible to drugs and crime. In response to this pressing concern, many communities have created
after-school programs to keep children and youth out of trouble and engaged in activities that help them
learn. Recent polls have found overwhelming adult support to personally ensure access to after-school
programs for children in their community.
However, a chronic shortage of quality after-school programs exists. According to parents, the need far
exceeds the current supply. One recent study found that twice as many elementary and middle school parents
wanted after-school programs than were currently available.
After-school programs provide a wide array of benefits to children, their families, schools, and the
whole community. This report, jointly authored by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, focuses
exclusively on the benefits children receive in terms of increased safety, reduced risk-taking, and
First and foremost, after-school programs keep children of all ages safe and out of trouble. The
after-school hours are the time when juvenile crime hits its peak, but through attentive adult
supervision, quality after-school programs can protect our children. As this report shows, in communities
with comprehensive programs, children are less likely to commit crimes or to be victimized.
After-school programs also can help to improve the academic performance of participating children. For
many children, their reading and math scores have improved in large part because after-school programs
allow them to focus attention on areas in which they are having difficulties. Many programs connect
learning to more relaxed and enriching activities, thereby improving academic performance as well.
Helping Children to Succeed
Children, families, and communities benefit in measurable ways from high-quality after-school and extended
learning programs. As an alternative to children spending large numbers of hours alone or with peers in
inadequately supervised activities, well-planned and well-staffed programs provide safe havens where
children can learn, take part in supervised recreation, and build strong, positive relationships with
responsible, caring adults and peers. Communities fare better when their young people are occupied in
meaningful, supervised activities after school. After-school programs have helped reduce the juvenile
crime rate. Adolescents are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as tobacco use, when they have
after-school programs to go to. Children watch less television (which has been associated with aggressive
behavior and other negative consequences). Finally, injuries and victimization decline in communities
previously plagued by crime.
After-school programs also contribute to raising children's self-confidence as well as academic
performance. Both teachers and parents report that children who participate in after-school programs
develop better social skills and learn to handle conflicts in more socially acceptable ways. Children
indicate that they have higher aspirations for their future, including greater intentions to complete high
school and attend college. Participants in programs that focus on helping children prepare for college
have gone on to do so in impressive numbers.
Families able to enroll their children in good programs indicate that their children are safer and more
successful in school. These families also develop a greater interest in their child's learning. In
addition, children develop new interests and skills and improve their school attendance. Both children and
school systems benefit from after-school programs, which lessen the need to retain children in grade due
to poor academic progress and to place children in special education.
In many cases, communities have come together to improve the availability of after-school programs.
Partnerships among schools, local governments, law enforcement, youth- and community-based organizations,
social and health services, and businesses have resulted in a number of high-quality after-school
programs. These partnerships foster a greater volunteer spirit and provide opportunities for parents to
increase their parenting skills and participate in program activities.
Creating High-Quality After-School Programs
From school to school, neighborhood to neighborhood, and community to community, every after-school
program is different. Successful programs respond to community needs: Their creation is the result of a
community effort to evaluate the needs of its school-age children when school is not in session.
Even so, certain characteristics are indicative of exemplary programs in general. First and foremost,
good after-school programs set goals and have strong leadership and effective managers who carry them
forward and plan for long-term sustainability. Quality programs hire skilled and qualified staff, provide
them with ongoing professional development, and keep adult-to-child ratios low and group sizes manageable.
While many programs offer homework support and tutoring, successful programs ensure that academic-linked
activities are fun and engaging. Parents often want computer, art, and music classes, as well as
opportunities for their children to do community service. Thus good after-school programs reflect a
commitment to promote knowledge, skills, and understanding through enriching learning opportunities that
complement the school day.
Good after-school programs reach out to the families of children in the program, keeping them informed of
their children's activities and providing opportunities to volunteer. Building partnerships with the
community only serves to strengthen the partnerships with families and the program as a whole. Communities
that are involved in after-school programs provide volunteers, establish supporting networks of
community-based and youth-serving organizations, offer expertise in management and youth development, and
secure needed resources and funding for programs.
These partnerships share the common goal of helping children grow up safe and smart. Linking the
after-school program with children's learning experiences in the classroom improves children's academic
achievement. Toward this end, there are a number of strategies that can be incorporated into an
after-school program. Coordinating what's learned during the regular school day with after-school
activities and establishing linkages between school day teachers and after-school personnel can go a long
way toward helping students learn.
From the very start, effective programs use well-planned, continuous evaluations to judge the efficacy of
their efforts based on established, accepted goals for the program. Evaluations typically gather
information from students, parents, teachers, school administrators, staff, and volunteers that can be
used for a variety of purposes, such as measuring students' academic progress, making improvements in
program services, and identifying the need for additional resources.
This article appeared as the introduction to a report published jointly by the United States
Department of Education and the United States Justice Department. For the full report, go to http://www.ed.gov/pubs/parents/SafeSmart/.