A new household survey came with good news and bad news: children’s participation in after-school programs is higher than ever, but so is the unmet demand for these programs. For every child enrolled in a program, two are waiting to get in.
“The fact that there are so many kids who would be in a program if a program were available to them should be a concern to all of us,” said Jen Rinehart, the vice president of the Afterschool Alliance and the survey’s lead researcher.
The demand is driven by increased awareness of these programs’ benefits. Recent studies have shown after-school programs not only improve academic performance and personal development, but also significantly reduce risky and delinquent behavior.
However, lack of funding at federal, state, and local levels and other barriers persist, leaving the majority of children unable to enroll.
A Lack of Funding and High Costs
The report, called “America After 3 PM,” has been released every five years since 2004 by Afterschool Alliance, an organization dedicated to increasing after-school participation and funding across the nation. Data is based on 3,704 in-depth interviews with households with children, with at least 200 in each state and Washington D.C.
Since 2009, the percent of children participating in Afterschool has risen from 15 to 18 percent (10.2 million from 8.4 million), while the number of unsupervised children has declined from 15.1 million to 11.3 million. That means one in five children remain unsupervised. Meanwhile, the percent of children who would participate in Afterschool if programs were available has risen from 38 percent to 41 percent (19.4 million from 18.5).
The problem is, they aren’t, in large part due to lack of funding. Parental support for public funding remains high across socio-economic background, ethnicity, and party lines.
But federal funding, which comes mostly through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program, has been stalled for years, according to Afterschool Alliance executive director Jodi Grant.
“Years and years ago, when No Child Left Behind was enacted with bipartisan support, the goal for 21st Century was 2.5 billion dollars by 2007,” she said at a news conference. “We’re not even at half of that.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger, ex-California governor and Founder of After-School All Stars, said the amount of funding needed to meet the unmet demand is $5 billion. While he called for increased federal, state, and local investment, he said parents need to step up as well.
“It shouldn’t just be a one way street,” Schwarzenegger said at the news conference.
This could be difficult for low-income households. While they show the highest participation in and highest demand for after-school programs, low-income families are also more likely to lack an available program or cite costs and unsafe routes as barriers to access.
Other opportunity gaps remain.
Although African-American and Latino/a families showed much higher demand than Caucasians, Caucasians remain the majority of participants in afterschool programs at 71 percent. Minority families, like low-income households, cited unavailability and lack of a safe route as the biggest barriers.
This could raise concern in Chicago, where the high number of school closings in the past year have forced students to walk to farther schools, often through gang territory or isolated, abandoned lots. The majority of afterschool programs take place in public school buildings, the report said.
In response, Chicago Public Schools has implemented Safe Passage routes and recently expanded the program to accommodate the influx of CPS students. Although Safe Passage has raised criticism and questions of effectiveness, no students have been hurt on these routes since the beginning of the school year, according to CPS.
Additionally, the Safe Haven program expanded this year to provide free programs at 40 more after-school sites.
Rinehart said states with state-level funding streams for after-school programs see the highest rates of participation.
“In many of the states where they really made after-school programs a priority, we see much stronger data than in states where folks are trying to piece together with existing resources,” she said.
Eight of the top 10 states for after-school also have established statewide after-school networks and almost all of them have cities with strong local after-school systems.
In Illinois, only 52,084 of the 758,491 kids eligible for the state’s federal funding stream are attending federally funded programs because of a lack of funding. This leaves Illinois with unmet demand similar to that at the national level.
Chicago, on the other hand, was named by Afterschool Alliance as a “stronghold of after-school programs,” in part due to its robust citywide system and high investments (averaging $100 million a year) from community partners. Although there was not enough data for Chicago this year, 27 percent of kids in 2009 were enrolled in afterschool programs compared to the nation’s 15 and the state’s 16, while parental support for funding and participation were much higher as well. Yet more appears needed, as evidenced by the high number of murders and shootings in a city trying to shake its reputation for violence – much of it involving youth.
A Return on Investment
Despite the daunting costs, not investing in after-school programs would cost even more in the long run, Afterschool Alliance said.
“This is an investment that you get a huge bang for your buck,” Grant said.
Studies cited by Afterschool Alliance report that after-school hours (between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.) are the peak time for juvenile crime and experimentation with drugs, alcohol and sex. They also indicated teens who did not participate in after-school programs are three times more likely to skip class.
In the report, 83 percent of parents with children in afterschool programs agreed that the programs reduced the likelihood of youths participating in risky behaviors like drug use, crime, and teen parenting.
Recent studies seem to corroborate this.
One 2011 study on Chicago’s After School Matters program showed participants were significantly less likely to join gangs and deal drugs compared to non-participants. The National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center also reported kids who were not in afterschool programs are 49 percent more likely to use drugs and 37 percent more likely to become teen parents. Evaluations of programs in California showed significant reductions in arrests and crime as well.
The programs could save other costs as well.
A 2002 study found after-school programs would reduce childcare costs, reduce remedial counseling costs, return $8.25 to $12.90 to every $1 spent on programming for an at-risk child, and save millions just by diverting less than one percent of at-risk youth, who cost society on average of $1.5 million each.
“We can’t afford to not invest in these afterschool programs,” said Syracuse Police Chief Frank L. Fowler, who has seen both sides, working undercover but also as a high school sports coach. “We’re going to spend money on these young people one way or another. We could spend it up front on these after-school programs by providing them with the resources that they need to become successful adults, or we can leave them to the streets…and they’re going to end up in our prison system and we’re going to spend money on them that way.”