January 24, 2000
The Bell Rings and the Students Stay
By JODI WILGOREN
begins at 3 p.m.
Every afternoon, in thousands of schools across America,
students are staying after the final bell. They file
back into cafeterias for a snack, then filter through classrooms
conducting science experiments and creating art projects. They play,
but they also study. By the time they go home, the sun has already
The explosion in after-school programs -- federal financing alone
has ballooned to $454 million this year from $1 million in 1997 --
represents nothing less than a reimagining of the school day for the
first time in generations, as educators and policymakers seek to
respond to the realities of working families and what may be missing
from the classroom.
The lofty goal, says the Afterschool Alliance, a coalition of
businesses, foundations and the federal government, is for every
American child to have access to high-quality programs by the end of
"How many hours does it take to truly help a child learn and grow
in today's society?" asked Jennifer Davis, executive director of
Boston 2 to 6, one of the programs sprouting in communities across the
country. "It's no longer enough to just have a school day."
With 78 percent of mothers of school-age children in the work
force, and welfare reform pushing more into jobs, millions of children
are on their own between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., the hours when youth are
most likely to commit crime -- or be victimized by it. At the same
time, the public is increasingly frustrated with school failures,
worried about poor performance on standardized tests and that the
renewed emphasis on basic skills has squeezed out enrichment programs
like music and gym.
Typically offered free but with required attendance in poor urban
areas, the burgeoning after-school programs in some ways try to mimic
the suburban activity calendar in which the children of cul-de-sacs
are shuttled from piano lessons to soccer practice, with time for
tutoring and play dates in between. They also imitate the schedules of
elite boarding schools, keeping students scheduled until dark
with experiential learning and athletics -- an agenda laced with
academics, yet distinct from what happens during the day.
"If you give kids more time to learn," said Adriana DeKanter, the
adviser to the United States Secretary of education for after-school
issues, "they're going to learn more."
In Boston, teenagers cook sophisticated meals or stage mock trials
after apprenticeships with volunteer chefs and lawyers. In the San
Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, children at one school built a
miniature golf course. About 500,000 students in 1,000 school
districts in 45 states are using curriculums like "Time Warp Egypt"
and "Do Cows Eat Sunshine?" that were designed by the Smithsonian
Institution with Voyager Expanded Learning, a company based in Dallas.
Up to $5 billion in public and private money is being spent
annually on after-school programs, and estimates on how many
students are involved range from two million to five million.
The programs have mostly blossomed in underprivileged area, but
experts think they will soon spread to middle-class suburbs.
While the notion of keeping idle youngsters out of trouble with
meaningful activities has universal appeal, some critics frown at the
notion of the government, rather than families, being responsible for
children for more hours each day. Considering the shortcomings of
public schools, others are skeptical about expanding their reach --
will more time just produce more failure?
"It's got to be a lot more than just baby-sitting," said Herbert
Sturz, chairman of the After School Corporation, an initiative funded
largely by George Soros which, by next month, will have programs
serving 26,000 students in 100 New York schools. At the same
time, warned Gil Noam, a professor of medicine and education at
Harvard, "we have to be very careful not to overprogram," because it
is "very important just to kind of have downtime where kids can be
At P.S. 130, the after-school program is centered on a production
of "The Wiz," which took the stage last week. Focusing on the
musical's themes of home and family, the elementary-school
students did research projects about Kansas, drew maps and
built cardboard houses modeled on Dorothy's, while also rehearsing
songs and dances and painting a backdrop for the set.
One recent afternoon, Washington Chavez, a local artist, led a
group of second-graders through a lesson about detail as they outlined
the yellow-brick road, as Tamik Davis, who is in fourth grade, tumbled
across the auditorium practicing the tornado dance.
"Children that are very quiet and very shy are being more
expressive," said Juliet McBride, a reading teacher at the school who
also works in the after-school program. "You can see it in their
self-esteem. You can see it in their grades."
A variety of small-scale studies have shown that enrollment in
after-school programs, particularly through grade 3, helps boost
attendance and reduce behavior problems during the school day, and
even improves academic performance in class and on standardized tests.
Surveys done for the After School Corporation suggest that
students in the programs are more likely to finish their
homework, read, use computers and feel comfortable solving math
problems, while their parents report being able to work more hours
while also developing closer relationships with their children's
In Chicago, where youngsters with low test scores, about 237,000 of
them, are required to attend the Lighthouse after-school program, 89
percent of those enrolled saw their scores rise. In the Cabrini Green
housing project, the portion of students at the Jenner Academy
for the arts who meet the national average has jumped to 21 percent
from 14 percent in reading and to 29 percent from 15 percent in math,
since Lighthouse began.
"In some of the homes, there's either no parents to help with
homework, or parents may not be capable," said Blondean Davis,
Chicago's chief of schools and regents. When the city instituted
mandatory homework in 1996, Dr. Davis said, "parents wrote to us and
said, 'How do I help with inversion of fractions? What do I know about
calculus?' The focus of Lighthouse is on the reading, the math, and
the homework assistance."
But as the after-school movement skyrockets, with at least 26
states planning to increase funding, along with countless cities,
school districts, foundations and private companies, questions abound
about how to structure curriculum and recruit and train staff. Many
doubt the After School Corporation's estimate that high-quality
programs can cost just $1,000 per child, pegging it closer to $1,800
(the Children's Defense Fund puts it as high as $3,000). And summer
programs, the obvious next step in needy neighborhoods, are even more
complex and expensive.
There is widespread agreement that the new after-school programs
should be situated in schools -- rather than the old model of the
Y.M.C.A. -- to take advantage of insured public facilities sitting
empty, give the added hours an academic air, and help school sites
become the hubs of their communities. Most, though, think they are
best run not by school districts and teachers but by neighborhood
institutions -- the Dance Theater of Harlem, the Children's Museum of
Boston, or community-development organizations -- able to bring
something beyond books.
Nearly all the programs contain a homework or tutoring component,
but the other hours are filled with recreation, adventure, or artistic
activities. The federal government provides a free snack.
"If we extend the day, it cannot be more of the same," said Deborah
Lowe Vandell, a professor of educational psychology at the University
of Wisconsin who is perhaps the nation's leading researcher on
Eric Schwarz, cofounder of Citizen Schools, the apprenticeship
program in Boston, said the key is to replace the "drill and kill"
approach of the test-focused classroom with something that will "allow
kids to learn and have fun at the same time."
One major issue is who should staff the programs. Some places, like
Chicago, use only teachers or retired teachers, but most say that is
unrealistic because of burnout, or simply too costly. Instead,
programs recruit lower-level school employees, college or high school
students, local artists and musicians and even unemployed
people from nearby neighborhoods, usually offering $6 to $15 an hour.
Turnover is brisk.
"Children need adults to help them grow up successfully," said
Carla Sanger, director of L.A.'s Best, whose employees typically come
from the low-income neighborhoods where the schools are situated and
go through extensive training. "Good adult supervision requires a lot
of generosity. That's not always intuitive. We have to build what that
means among staff."
At P.S. 130 in the Bronx, Rosetta Price is a cafeteria worker by
day, a counselor in the after-school program.
She has a special rapport with the children she leads in games and
helps to make glittery pins out of bow-tie pasta; they relate to her
in a different way than they do their more highly educated teachers.
Parents are often in the classroom as well, either as volunteer
helpers or as paid counselors.
Attendance is good -- better than in a pure reading program aimed
at weaker students in the school -- and the children seem
thrilled with the array of activities.
"At home, all you do is watch TV -- over here you do more stuff,"
said Giovanni Vicenti, 8, as he squirmed in his small chair in Ms.
Price's class. "You get to do art, you get to paint, you get to do
The children said they finish all their homework during the
after-school program, so in the evening, they are free to play.
"I used to go home and be bored," said Nieka Williams, another
8-year-old. "It's fun here."