Campus & Community

Researchers stay after school:

6 min read

Before- and after-school hours key to the nurturing of children, say researchers at GSE

Photo of Karen Horsch and Heather
Researcher Karen Horsch (left) and program director Heather Weiss of the Harvard Family Research Project are assessing after-school programs. Heather Koerber Nunes ’90 and son Emmett are on the see-saw in background. <i>Staff photo by Jon Chase</i>

When the school bell rings each afternoon, millions of American kids hit the streets. Some head home to study or watch television. Some ride their bicycles or play soccer. But for many others, the free time is wasted and, in the worst cases, can lead to violence, drugs, and crime.

How to keep children occupied and engaged in worthwhile after-school pursuits is becoming a major focus of study at the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) at the Graduate School of Education (GSE). The project is analyzing existing research while constructing a database that will be useful for policy-makers, public and private funders, and those who run after-school programs in the years to come.

The after-school research is sponsored by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, a Michigan-based philanthropic organization dedicated to the principle of effecting positive change through community empowerment.

“HFRP’s mission is to conduct research and disseminate research that supports families in raising their kids – everything from early childhood education and parental involvement in kids’ learning to out-of-school time,” explains Heather Weiss, senior researcher, founder, and director of HFRP. “More and more working parents trying to juggle work and family need services that support them in raising their kids.”

With an increase in the number of working moms, a subsequent explosion in the number of so-called “latch-key kids,” and a growing demand for programs to address the changing situation, HFRP has zeroed in on the after-school issue in recent years.

“Time is a huge premium [nowadays],” Weiss says. “So you want to make sure your kids are engaged in good activities, … and because there is such an emphasis now on education and development, parents want to make sure they’re putting together resources that give their kids the best opportunities, both in school and out of school.”

The challenge of creating productive out-of-school opportunities for children has also hit the public policy radar screen in Washington. There are several reasons why, including new welfare reform rules that have spurred thousands of women back to work.

“What we don’t want to do is have welfare reform result in short-term reduction in the welfare rolls and long-term harm to kids,” says Weiss. “Part of the contract for welfare reform is figuring out what we need to do to make sure the kids of the moms who are making this transition [to the workplace] have the opportunities and the support they need.”

The Clinton Administration has responded by sponsoring more than $100 million in 21st Century Community Learning Center grants to more than 900 school districts across the country. The funds are used to pay for before-school, after-school, and summer programs designed to help children improve their academic performance.

The Boston 2-to-6 After-School Initiative, launched by Mayor Thomas Menino in 1998, is among those receiving strong government support. Senior Program manager Marinell Yoders says the city has established nine sites with federal funds and five additional sites using state monies.

“The program aims to transform school buildings into community learning centers, bringing in a number of resources that students, parents, and community members will have access to,” Yoders says. “I think it’s working quite well. It’s a model that the city and our partners are really investing in.”

As the federal funding for such programs continues to increase, so does the urgency to quantitatively measure the ingredients of a successful program. That’s where HFRP can lend its expertise.

“We’re living in a time when people have to show that they’re doing something, that they’re getting results for kids, so overlaying anything in public policy right now is the term ‘outcomes accountability’ – show us the results,” explains Karen Horsch, project manager. “Our role is to bring some of that together, and share that [information] with policy-makers. … Our focus is on evaluation.”

The evaluation process is detailed and painstaking.

“We know generally that these programs are effective,” Horsch says. “I think we’re still not sure which programs are more effective for what types of outcomes, for what types of kids, for what ages of kids. … We’re trying to help people get the information they need to make the best investments in these types of programs, so funders get information about what seems to work so they can make the best investments.

“We also want to ensure that the information gets to practitioners so they can shape their programs. They can take what they think works and incorporate it into their own program in the hopes that it will help them develop an effective program that supports kids,” she continues.

How best to implement programs that support kids is still very much a hot topic of debate all across the country, Weiss says. So is the philosophical question of which types of programs should receive government support. Many people in the community may argue that private non-for-profit agencies such as the Boys and Girls Clubs and the YMCA are those best suited to serve the needs of children. Others argue that the schools are the ideal location to host both academic and extracurricular activities.

The outcome of that argument may well determine the ultimate direction for after-school policy and programs in this country. But either way, Weiss contends, the issue is on the front burner to stay.

“There is a lot of constituent support for this,” she says. “These are middle-class folks and poor folks and a whole range of folks who now have a place where their kids can go after school, and they know they’re safe and they can get some benefit. … Whether you’re rich or poor in this country, you know that if your kid doesn’t get a good education he’s not going anyplace so this meets that set of needs.

“After school is, in many ways, the ‘new neighborhood’ for kids – a place where they see their friends, stay safe, and learn to grow. [The question is] what’s going to be in that neighborhood? These are big-stake issues in the sense that the kinds of opportunities we are going to provide for kids matter a lot,” she says.