Sue, an afterschool staff member, races into the school at 2:30 p.m. She came from a school across town where she has been a substitute all day. Sue gives a hurried “hello” to the school administrative assistant as she signs in for the day. Now, Sue runs down to the cafeteria, grabs the snacks, gets the attendance sheets to put on the tables, and figures out what activities are going to be offered to students once they finish homework help and tutoring. She finds some crayons and butcher paper for “Arts & Crafts” and some basketballs for “Sports”. The dismissal bell rings at 2:50 p.m. Within two minutes, students are already coming into the cafeteria.
Does this scenario sound familiar to anyone or is it a recurring nightmare that some of you may have? Despite the empathy we may have for Sue who is trying to do her best to meet her responsibilities, we must ask how are students benefitting from being in this program? Sure, the students have a safe place to be and are given time and support to complete their homework. But, is that what we really want for our afterschool programs? To say that they help students get their homework done and then give them some “busy work” to fill the rest of the time. I hope not.
Afterschool programs can be so much more and truly give students experiences that they may not receive during the school day or with their own families.
In my experience, there seems to be one common theme among all elements that comprise a quality afterschool setting. That theme is intentionality. In order to be successful in any aspect of our life, we need to understand where we are going and how we are going to get there. That same concept rings true for afterschool programs. (Please note that afterschool programs will be used as an example but this can be applied to any out-of-school time activity including before school and summer). Any activity offered in an afterschool program—whether it is academic, enrichment, or recreation—should only be implemented in the program if it is intentionally tied to the goals of the program.
To do this successfully, staff members need to be aware of what the goals of the program are. Ideally, these goals will be SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely). Unfortunately, 100% of the students are not going to increase their proficiency levels on the state assessment tests or improve their classroom grades in the first year of your program. However, if your program has a goal of increasing literacy competency for 25% of your kids in the first year, what types of activities are you going to put into place to make sure that the goal is achieved? Or, if you have a subset of students who need to work on behavioral skills, how are the activities that those students are enrolled in going to help students improve their behavior? Each and every activity implemented in the activity should be linked to a specific goal of the program.
Although intentionality will be context specific, there are three general areas that all programs can intentionally think about to strengthen their programs. Each of these topics is a dissertation in its own right, but these are critical for afterschool programs to help students reach their full potential: 1) aligning to the school day; 2) implementing high-quality enrichment activities; and 3) using data for continuous program improvement.
Aligning to the School Day
Although afterschool programs should not by any means duplicate what happens during the school day, afterschool staff members need to be aware of what students are doing during the day. If afterschool staff, especially those working with particular grade levels, are aware of the students’ daily homework assignments and the units/themes/topics being covered in the class, they will have a better understanding of the students’ needs and be able to help students more.
If your program’s goal is to help students academically, whether you are a school-based, community-based, or faith-based organization, knowing what is expected of students during the day will help you better plan how to approach the academic time in the afterschool program.
Implementing High-Quality Enrichment Activities
Afterschool programs have the potential opportunity to provide students with experiences that may not be offered through school or in their home lives. This means that afterschool programs should provide opportunities for students to be able to see how different skills will help them in life beyond school. This can be accomplished through field trips, guest speakers, and leadership opportunities. The possibilities are endless: using math with cooking, writing in journals about their favorite heroes, planning program events and taking on leadership roles throughout the program. Just be creative!
Using Data for Continuous Program Improvement
Finally, how do you know what you are doing is working? You need to continually assess and monitor your progress through informal and formal evaluation processes. If you know the needs of your students, this should be fairly easy. At least once a semester, you also want to check and see what kind of progress you are making on your goals. Did you reach that goal of 25% will increase literacy competency? If not, what activities were not successful? How can they be changed? If you did meet your goal, what is your new goal? What activities will you implement to reach that goal? How will you assess that goal? Often, looking at data can scare staff, but if you set up regular processes to review what is happening in the program, the staff will learn so much about what is happening in the program and what areas can be improved, that it will become a regular part of their discussion.
Essentially, when afterschool staff intentionally implement these three components and ensure that the activities offered will help them reach their end goals, the afterschool program is well on its way to becoming a program of the highest quality.
So what does this mean for our friend Sue? If Sue had been intentional about her program design, she would have known what types of activities to offer her students before she rushed into the school. If the activities had been well-planned and intentional, they would have been more meaningful for the students. Sue still could have offered an “Arts & Crafts” class that would not have taken a lot of time to prepare. If she had known what book the students were reading in their language arts classes, she could have asked them to draw a picture of their favorite scene in the book and then present it in front of others. For students who wanted to play basketball, they could have been taught some drills so they were not just tossing the ball around but learning the finer skills of the game. Students could also keep score and statistics in order to integrate math skills into the activity so students can see how the activity is applicable to the real world. These are the teaching moments that are going to push students ahead and make the afterschool program more meaningful.
For students who wanted to play basketball, they could have been taught some drills so they were not just tossing the ball around but learning the finer skills of the game. Students could also keep score and statistics in order to integrate math skills into the activity so students can see how the activity is applicable to the real world. These are the teaching moments that are going to push students ahead and make the afterschool program more meaningful.
On a personal note, because I needed the energy to finish this blog today, I intentionally had a high energy breakfast of orange juice, granola, and yogurt.
Author Profile: @taradonahue