Campus & Community

Is there life after school for nation’s students?:

7 min read

Gil Noam links improved after-school programs to improved mental health

Gil Noam

For Boston middle school students, school’s out at 1:35 in the afternoon. Between that time and when their parents return home from work, youth crime spikes and drug use rises. Risk for teenage pregnancy increases in the late afternoon.

Few statistics make a more compelling case for after-school programs – safe, structured places for kids to bridge the school day and home with academics, recreation, and some plain old hanging out.

But for Gil Noam, director of Harvard’s Program in Afterschool Education and Research (PAER), after-school programming is important for another reason: It promotes the mental health of children, helping kids form strong relationships with key adults – relationships that can protect them from risky behavior and boost their achievement in school.

Noam, an associate professor with a joint appointment in psychology at the Harvard Medical School (HMS), where he leads the Developmental Psychology Research Program at McLean Hospital, and in education at the Graduate School of Education (GSE), has forged a link between the mental health of children and after-school education.

The University has most recently tapped his expertise for its Harvard After School Initiative (HASI), Harvard’s five-year, $5 million commitment to increase access to and improve the quality of after-school programming in its host neighborhoods of Allston-Brighton, the Fenway, and Mission Hill, through grant-making, research, and technical assistance.

“What we’re studying very carefully are the ingredients of positive relationships with children and youth,” says Noam. At McLean, Noam has directed a longitudinal mental health study of 120 high-risk adolescents, probing which factors help the majority of them – about two-thirds – overcome significant psychiatric, behavioral, family, and even criminal problems to do well as they enter adulthood.

“Our focus became how do children develop resiliency, rather than who constitutionally has resiliency,” Noam says, adding that the research and data analysis is ongoing. Over and over, children who developed resiliency talked about the relationships they formed with child-care workers, mentors, teachers, and coaches.

In short, the sort of adults who are likely to enter kids’ lives through after-school programs.

From mental health to after school

Noam’s resiliency findings launched RALLY (Responsive Advocacy for Life & Learning in Youth), a research-based program in Boston, Cleveland, and San Francisco that puts “prevention practitioners” – graduate students trained to fill the important role Noam’s research subjects spoke of – in middle schools.

While RALLY initially worked during school hours, “it became clear that all the things we had been doing were very connected to after school,” Noam says. “You can have the best school-based program, but unless you work out something for the out-of-school time, you’re not going to be very successful.”

Noam founded PAER to apply theoretical and practical work to the young field in 1999, and he and his colleagues at GSE and McLean began working with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s then-new 2:00-to-6:00 After-School Initiative as well as with a large-scale after-school initiative in New York.

His research proved timely: Nationwide, educators, families, civic leaders, and policy-makers began focusing on after-school time to address everything from youth crime to school reform to parents’ effectiveness at work. The past five years have seen a boom in after-school education across the country, Noam says. Federal funding for 21st Century Community Learning Centers, an after-school initiative of the Clinton administration, mushroomed from $1 million in 1997 to more than $1 billion in 2002.

“There’s a recognition that this is not just an issue of poverty or privilege. This is an area that is relevant for all people who have children,” he says, and it’s won support among those who don’t have children but embrace its communitywide benefits.

As the study and practice of after-school education gains traction as a field, PAER is taking a leadership role. This fall, Noam and co-authors Gina Biancarosa and Nadine Dechausay released “Afterschool Education: Approaches to an Emerging Field,” a book published by the GSE’s Harvard Education Press that surveys the current landscape of after-school education and points to important issues and practices.

“The idea is to create a new way of training and teaching. There’s a lot of innovation at stake here,” he says.

Noam and PAER are looking at, among other things, enhancing the training and professional development for after-school leaders and workers, and creating academic models that build on, but don’t replicate, in-school education.

“The danger that I saw, and many of my colleagues saw, was that this new social space, with a lot of funding, would just become an extended school day,” he says. For at-risk students for whom school is a difficult experience, more of the same is unlikely to be effective.

On the other hand, he says, good after-school education can engage kids who are disconnected with the school day by presenting learning differently, for instance with creative arts, community activities, or physical recreation. The less formal, less judgmental environment, too, helps some students thrive. After schools as partners of schools could have a big impact on education reform in this country and internationally, Noam believes.

“After school can play a role in making learning richer for kids,” he says.

After-school programs also have an edge when it comes to connecting families to schools. Bridging the school day – when few working parents can meet with teachers and counselors – and family time, after-school programs can serve as an informal conduit for everything from homework instruction to teachers’ concerns about behavior and students’ well-being.

It takes a village of institutions

PAER is the research and training arm of HASI, which also draws on the faculty expertise of the Harvard Children’s Initiative and the undergraduate public service power of Phillips Brooks House. The Office of the Vice President of Government, Community and Public Affairs leads and coordinates HASI, which provides operating and capital improvement funds to after-school programs.

HASI, Noam says, built on research and best practices from its inception. And while it’s backed by a significant financial commitment from the University, “this is not just Harvard being a good neighbor,” he says. “This is an effort at solving a societally relevant area with good thinking and in-depth research, but in new ways. What we learn here in collaboration with our community partners is relevant for the entire field.”

Noam’s efforts to bring his research to Boston youth via HASI, which works in collaboration with Boston’s After-School for All Partnership, is getting high marks.

“PAER’s work has had tremendous positive impact on Boston’s after-school programs, both in Harvard’s neighborhoods and across the city,” says Kathleen Traphagen, executive director of the Boston 2:00-to-6:00 After-School Initiative.

One important feature of HASI is its wide sweep of collaborations and partnerships, involving a network of traditional youth service providers like YMCAs and Boston community centers, as well as hospitals, mental health workers, educators, and researchers.

“There is a need to bring all these together because the kids have so many needs that you can’t just do it by having a boutique program here and there,” says Noam.

For children and families, however, the alphabet soup of affiliations is far less meaningful than the relationships they form with individuals. The 10-year-old who spends her after-school time at Allston’s Jackson-Mann Community Center doesn’t care whether the art program is funded with a HASI grant or whether her basketball coach comes from the Y; she needs someone to trust with her joys and her problems. HASI’s web of collaborations can then help the child access the services – from health care to homework tutors – she might need.

Noam sees such collaborative support as more necessary than ever as families are taxed by long work hours, whether blue-collar workers piecing together several jobs or double-executive families who work into the evenings and on weekends.

“The focus that we have as a society on work does have a cost,” he says. “We lived for so long in this fantasy world that somehow this cookie-and-milk approach of the ’50s was still a working model. We have to reorganize what families can do and support them – only then will no child be left behind.”