Over the past two decades, we have had the privilege of evaluating many 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) programs in states across the country, including in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Georgia, Florida, and Ohio. As part of our work, we collect a variety of data on program outcomes, such as student attendance, academic achievement, social-emotional learning, and program satisfaction from 21st CCLC staff members, regular school day teachers, parents, and students. Perhaps most valuable, however, are the site visits we make to see programs in action. During these visits, we have had the opportunity to speak with staff members, students, and parents to learn about the impact these programs have on young people across a wide spectrum of school- and community-based program settings. Based on 20 years of findings from a plethora of 21st CCLC and other out-of-school time program evaluations, we have identified some key practices to consider when implementing and evaluating 21st CCLC initiatives.
Offer youth-driven enrichment. 21st CCLC programs are intended to provide students with access to enrichment activities as well as support for students’ academic achievement in mathematics and literacy. In addition to providing students with unique learning opportunities, enrichment activities can be a powerful tool to bolster program attendance. Across programs, we have seen a wide variety of enrichment activities, such as STEAM/STEM, gaming, martial arts, gymnastics, yoga, theater, or instrumental music. Programs generally contract with local community organizations to deliver enrichment activities in their area of specialization. Yet, despite the potential appeal, programs often struggle to keep students interested and engaged in enrichment activities. One way to increase students’ engagement is to align these activities with students’ interests. Programs that meaningfully incorporate youth voice into their programming provide more responsive services, helping young people develop social and emotional skills that enable them to thrive now—and into adulthood (Perry, 2017). This may take several different forms, such as student interest surveys, student programming options/choices, and youth leadership opportunities.
Know your audience. In addition to offering student enrichment activities, we have identified other practices that may bolster student participation. In our experience, elementary school students attend afterschool programs because their parents send them for childcare purposes, middle school students choose to attend because their friends are there, and high school students attend because it has something unique to offer that they can’t get elsewhere. Programs can leverage this information by strategically designing and marketing programs aligned with the needs of each constituency. For example, programs serving elementary-age students might develop outreach strategies focused on meeting families’ childcare needs by providing weeklong or year-round programming, including transportation. Not only are middle and high school-aged youth difficult to engage in afterschool activities, but they are more likely to have competing demands on their time during afterschool hours (Older Youth and Afterschool: Partnering to Improve Results, n.d.). Programs serving older youth may consider more flexible scheduling such as operating Monday through Thursday, allowing students to attend Friday-afternoon school events (e.g., football games) or varied other scheduling options, such as before school, weekends, or during school breaks for students who have after-school jobs or family obligations. Finally, programs serving high school students may offer credit recovery classes to help them meet graduation requirements on time.
Engage schools as partners. Research shows that coordinated and strong partnerships between schools and after-school programs improve student academic outcomes (Bennett, 2015). We have found that 21st CCLC programs that are integrated into the school culture (and may even have an office on-site) have stronger relationships with the regular school day staff. In addition to principal leadership, informal structures and formal activities that bridge after-school and regular school day learning, such as offering joint professional development, meetings between the regular school day and afterschool teachers to understand individual student needs, and sharing data-friendly snapshots of the links between students’ after-school attendance and positive outcomes (Anthony & Morra, 2016) can promote stronger program impacts.
Plan for evaluation early. 21st CCLC after-school programs are required to evaluate their programs over the course of the grant. While the specific requirements vary by state, all grantees are required to gather evaluation data in a variety of areas, often with the assistance of an external evaluator. This can sometimes be a challenge as it is time-consuming and (sometimes) difficult to gather all the needed data. However, the work can pay dividends if the evaluator and grantee work collaboratively from the beginning to customize instruments and reporting to the needs of the schools and staff. The information provided to program staff can be used to help improve the program over time as well as meet State and Federal requirements.
Overall, we have found that 21st CCLC programs are essential supports for students in both tangible and intangible. Programs provide supper to students who would not otherwise have a warm, nutritious meal to eat; homework support and individualized instruction to students whose parents may not be able to do so; activities to promote college and career readiness; and a safe place to learn and grow academically and emotionally. Our work evaluating these programs over the last two decades, and the work of many other researchers (see, for example, Metis President Stan Schneider’s piece on the importance of after-school programs), points to the need to continue to expand these supports as well as bolster evaluation to identify further best practices in the field.
Anthony, K., & Morra, J. (2016). Creating Holistic Partnerships Between School and Afterschool. Afterschool Matters.
Bennett, T. L. (2015). Examining levels of alignment between school and afterschool and associations on student academic achievement. Journal of Expanded Learning Opprtunities, 4-22.
Older Youth and Afterschool: Partnering to Improve Results. (n.d.). Retrieved September 18, 2018, from Afterschool Alliance.
Perry, M. (2017, May 23). Four Principles for Meaningfully Incorporating Youth Voice into Programs and Services. Retrieved September 18, 2018, from Education Northwest.