Commentary: Professionalizing afterschool programs worth the investment | Commentary
Afterschool and summer programs are vital to the health and wellbeing of children and families. In South Carolina, 83% of parents agree that afterschool programs are helping working parents keep their jobs, and studies have shown time and again the positive impact of high-quality afterschool and summer learning opportunities on academic and social outcomes.
Yet concerted efforts to fund and professionalize afterschool and expanded learning opportunities are limited. In South Carolina, for every child in an afterschool program, three are left waiting for an available program, and the federal government’s recent $1.3 billion allocation for afterschool programs nationwide falls woefully short of the need, which has grown since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s time to invest more in afterschool and to give these programs their professional due.
The South Carolina Department of Education’s use of pandemic-driven federal funds — known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds — in 2022 to expand summer and afterschool programs has been a move in the right direction. Among other programs, the $14.5 million investment has made possible the 10-month South Carolina Afterschool Leaders Empowered (SCALE) fellowship, led by the Riley Institute at Furman University, and a recent first-of-its-kind statewide event, PowerUp! A SCALE Convening on Afterschool.
The meeting brought together afterschool and summer professionals from across South Carolina and beyond to learn and problem-solve around a central, guiding premise: Expanded learning programs should be understood as a profession and should offer intentional, evidence-based programming, which has proven to have a positive impact on social and academic outcomes.
At PowerUp!, the hunger for more programming that brings afterschool and expanded learning staff together as a profession was on full display. Roughly 115 participants from across the state enthusiastically engaged in sessions focused on effective leadership, recruitment and retention strategies; strategic partnerships to expand program impact; and the development of evidence-based programming to better address the academic, social and emotional needs of children and youth. Importantly, SCALE fellows and their program teams, who represented most of the event attendees, were given an opportunity to bond and leverage SCALE fellows’ acquired knowledge to workshop challenges unique to their organizations, and to do so outside of their workplace settings, where day-to-day demands often eclipse longer-term planning.
Similarly, the broader SCALE fellowship has helped develop afterschool staff from across the state into leaders equipped with the tools and know-how to professionalize their staff and offerings. To measure participants’ growth in knowledge and skills, SCALE program staff surveyed SCALE participants before the start of the program and after its completion. Prior to beginning the fellowship, 18% of 2021-22 SCALE fellows claimed to be “very knowledgeable” or “expert” on evidence-based, high-quality strategies that increase student outcomes in afterschool and summer learning, compared to 94% after the fellowship ended. Asked about their ability to use data to continuously improve programming, 24% felt very knowledgeable or expert before the fellowship, compared to 94% afterward. Learning in other areas, including implementing sustainable staffing plans and addressing students’ social and emotional needs, showed similar growth. Notably, even fellows who were well-versed in school and district operations and curricula indicated substantial knowledge gains in the specific work of afterschool.
The proof of what can be accomplished through city- and statewide efforts like SCALE and PowerUp! abounds. The Boston After School & Beyond effort, for example, successfully created a city-wide partnership between Boston public schools and multiple organizations to grow summer offerings from serving 232 children in 2010 to nearly 23,000 students in 2023. Investment in afterschool programming, including at a high level as a collective profession, can translate to partnerships, collaboration and program development that benefit afterschool staff, school districts and, above all, children and families.
With its 2022 investment, the Education Department has made statewide professional development programming possible in the afterschool space, signaling that it understands that impacting leaders ultimately drives program quality, which links to higher student outcomes. But ESSER funding runs out in September 2024, and then there is the very real question of what comes next.
The need for treating afterschool as a profession in South Carolina in the way that programs like PowerUp! and SCALE, along with South Carolina Afterschool Alliance and 21st Community Learning Centers, do is real. The desire on the part of afterschool and expanding learning staff to develop themselves and their programs is real. The impact quality programming has on students and the vital role these programs play in helping families function is real. These realities need to be met with continued and expanded investment in afterschool programming at the federal and state levels, as well as investment from private institutions. The payoff will be huge.
Amy Keely is director of the South Carolina Afterschool Leaders Empowered program in the Riley Institute at Furman University.