After-school programs add some stability in lives of low-income students

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Monday, October 31, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Of the 13 sixth-grade girls asked to explain why they want to take part in an Alexandria, Virginia-based after-school program called SOHO, Katherine Ivette Cuellar Moreno was the only one who typed her response. The rest were hand-written, and one was submitted in pencil.

Moreno, like the other girls, then participated in a trial session for one day where she had to display her enthusiasm to take part in the program for the rest of the school year. While meant to help students in need, the kids need to demonstrate they want the help.

SOHO stands for Space of Her Own, a joint venture between the local Court Service Unit and the non-profit Art League. The program meets once a week, and has two locations in Alexandria and one in Richmond. Depending on the location, fifth- or sixth-grade girls are paired with a mentor and an art instructor.

“First of all I LOVE to make things with my hands and i look for things to make i have made a crane, a heart, a wallet, a heart bracelet, and a gift box,” writes Moreno.

“I love to do things that are outdoors and I have never learned how to ride a bike and I am excited because i love to learn about new things even phisical things.”

The after-school sessions in Alexandria are also small in number — each site enrolls 11 girls.

From around 3 p.m. to 8 p.m, the pre-teens have a fixed schedule of completing homework assignments, enjoying a healthy meal and learning about proper nutrition. The girls meet with their female mentors and talk about school, personal aspirations and help mending through the anxieties of late adolescence. Afterwards, the girl and her mentor meet with a volunteer artist who helps the student work on art projects that will eventually appear in her bedroom. Colorful wall-mounted collages, intricate and bright tapestries hanging over the window sill, and other crafts projects to spruce up usually-drab bedrooms are worked on throughout the school year.

Amy Cable, a social studies teacher and the director of a SOHO site at Hammond Middle School in Alexandria, says the point is to target an at-risk population. “It could be that they’ve been deemed girls who are in need of an adult female mentor,” she said. “We get a referral from guidance counselors or principals” for those who need additional attention, said Cable in an interview with The American Independent.

Hammond is Title I eligible, but the superintendent of the district chose not to participate in the federal program that offers poor districts additional dollar assistance. Still, the girls at SOHO must be eligible to receive free and reduced lunch — a government subsidy for students of low-income households.

Prime Time for Juvenile Crime

Many after-school programs focus on low-income students who need a safe haven from their poverty-stricken and often chaotic neighborhoods. The troubles that plague these kids can be gritty, and the hours between when a child gets out of school to when the parents come home are called Prime Time for Juvenile Crime for a reason.

These principally state-funded activities are part of a nexus of tools in play that combine a focus on academics and lifestyle improvements for young children that are long lasting.

TAI has taken in-depth looks at extended classroom learning throughout the year and summer learning initiatives that fuse academics with outdoor activities. While similar to these additional learning projects, after-school programs go beyond learning and offer enrichment services to complement a child’s regular time in the classroom by “trying to address [their] academic, social, and emotional needs,” according to Cable.

That wide-ranging goal to touch the girls’ lives in manifold ways resonates with the mentees.

“Having a mentor who will help you, talk to you. Have a friend that is older than you, that has experience in life. Someone that bonds with me shares ideas. Tells me tips of how to be non-shy,” writes Melanie P., another sixth-grade Alexandria student hoping to enter the program. “My mom also suggested that I should get in this program cause it will keep my mind occupied in something.”

Although unique in its approach, SOHO is not alone in scope. As it stands, many students are left to their own devices when classes end for the day; according to the Afterschool Alliance, 24 percent of K-12 youth in California are responsible for entertaining themselves in the late afternoon and early evening. That percentage is consistent nationally, affecting some 15 million students.

Interestingly, research from the Alliance shows that 26 percent of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch are by themselves after school. The rate is higher for students who don’t qualify for the federal lunch subsidy—29 percent.

Jen Rinehart, vice president of research and policy for Afterschool Alliance, says the counterintuitive set of percentages is the result of “wealthier households…able to put together a variety of activity for kids, like soccer practice or guitar. They’re putting together their own activities,” she said.

Of course funding is an issue, in no small part because only one federal program exists in allocating dollars for before- and after-school programs — the 21st Century Community Learning Center. It was passed during the Clinton administration, with the bipartisan support under a Republican-controlled Congress, but money earmarked for the federal set of formula grants is just over $1 billion.

“There are many more kids who would participate, says Rinehart, “but when a state runs a [grant] competition, they’re able to fund only one in four requests that come in.”

After-school programs are shown to be successful

One after-school program in Chicago, called Project Exploration, offers science, technology and math services to students in the under-performing district. Still, according to a University of California at Berkeley study, students passing through Project Exploration graduated high school at nearly twice the rate — 95 percent – compared to other Chicago public school students.

The largest after-school non-profit in California is called LA’s BEST, and operates in over 180 campuses serving 28,000 students in the City of Los Angeles through the local school district.

In 2005, a University of California, Los Angeles study determined active participation in the program among students leads to a 20 percent decline in the likelihood a child will drop out of high school. Since LA’s BEST works with elementary school students, the program’s effect is felt long after a child moves on to higher grade levels.

The renowned research university’s interest in LA’s BEST lends the after-school non-profit some gravitas. Cable of Alexandria said SOHO is also moving towards more long-term data collection. “Tracking the girls is challenging. A number of girls who [we mentored] are no longer in Alexandria,” and looking at court lists to cross reference former mentees is a difficult process, said Cable.

In another 2007 study examining LA’s BEST, UCLA concluded participation in the program decreases a child’s chance of getting caught up in juvenile crime by 30 percent.

Catherine Stringer, vice president of communications and public affairs for LA’s BEST, says on average, 90 percent of the students they serve qualify for free and reduced lunches. According to her, LA’s BEST won’t enter a campus where the rate is below 70 percent.

Some 75 percent of LA BEST’s funding comes from a mix of federal, local and state dollars, with the rest made up of donations. Of all the public contributions, a California state expenditure called ASES contributes most significantly to LA BEST’s budget.

Stringer chalks up the success of LA’s Best to their staffing during in an interview with TAI. “We attribute it to a community based staff,” she said. The after-school personnel is by and large made up of college students from the local neighborhoods earning degrees in education, child development or social work. “They make connections and engage in such a way that students are getting the most of what they can out of it,” said Stringer.

The learning experience is a cognitive one: using a framework called three-and-a-half beats, the late afternoon and early evening hours these elementary students spend at LA’s BEST are dedicated to homework help, sound nutrition, athletics and other enrichment activities.

Just like at SOHO, the snacks are nutritious, and lessons are designed around education children on the merits of healthy eating. Both Cable and Stringer mentioned rising rates of child obesity as a determining factor in filling in part of the children’s day with lessons on sound nutrition.

Meanwhile, the cognitive exercises focus on learning activities that add to, but do not repeat, the instruction they received while in class.

“We’re viewing kids as individuals to be developed, not problems to be solved,” said Stringer.

More recent positive press for LA’s BEST points to the organization’s role in upping test scores: as participants move on to the middle school level, their standardized test scores in the major subjects improves. Students are also more likely to take algebra in the eighth grade when most students enter a year later.

Scarce funding compromised

“The first goal of getting kids to improve is to have them show up to class,” says Rinehart of Afterschool Alliance. By making these after-school programs fun, engaging and led by adults the kids can relate to, there’s an incentive to show up to class just to take part in the after-school services that come later.

Pressed for a legislative fix, Rinehart said what worries her recently is a congressional and White House drive to use dollars earmarked for after-school programs for expanded learning time and summer learning programs. That’s a possible reality following new language to the just-proposed bill to replace No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and in the Obama Administration’s waiver process so states can opt out of NCLB.

“We oppose this,” said Rinehart. “Longer school days should be done well and shouldn’t come at expense of proven services that are valuable for kids and families.”

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