After-School Programs Fall Short

Published July 1, 2003

A $1 billion federal after-school program that promised to provide “expanded learning opportunities for children and youth” isn’t helping most children academically, isn’t making children feel safer, and hasn’t changed the number of children at home alone after school each day, according to a new federally funded study.

Although President George W. Bush has proposed cutting funding for the program by 40 percent, law enforcement officials claim that would result in increased crime and violence.

“Even for after-school programs oriented towards providing academic support as well as recreational and social activities, there were few improvements in homework completion, grades, and test scores,” concluded the February 2003 report, When Schools Stay Open Late: The National Evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program. The study, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, was conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. of Princeton, New Jersey and Decision Information Resources Inc. of Houston.

“These findings reflect the challenges school-based after-school programs face to improve student outcomes,” noted the report, which examined 96 Centers across the country.

A national law enforcement group, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, argued funding for the Centers should not be cut but increased to $1.75 billion as a means of steering children away from crime and drugs. At a February news conference, Tulsa Sheriff Stanley Glanz pointed out the after-school hours are “the prime time for juvenile crime.”

Glanz presented data showing juvenile crime soars when schools let out, and after-school hours are when children are most likely to be victims of crime and to try drugs and alcohol. He said ten million children and teens are hanging out without adult supervision after school or home alone, “[entrusted] to the after-school teachings of Jerry Springer and violent video games.”

“We can pay now for after-school programs and invest in success, or we can plan to spend far more later on prisons for our failures, and funerals for their victims,” said Sheriff Drew Alexander of Summit County, Ohio, echoing a common theme for justifying children’s programs.

The study provided little evidence that the 21st Century Community Learning Centers would achieve the law enforcement group’s aims. The Centers produced no reduction in the percentage of children hanging out with their peers or home alone after school, but did reduce the percentage of children being cared for by family members and increase the percentage being cared for by non-parent adults.

In addition, although middle school students who used the Centers were “more likely to report that they had sold drugs ‘some’ or ‘a lot’ and were somewhat more likely to report that they smoked marijuana ‘some’ or ‘a lot,'” the incidence was low.

No Academic Improvement

Other key findings of the study include:

  • For elementary school students, reading test scores and grades in most subjects were no higher for program participants than for comparable non-participants;
  • For elementary school students, there was no difference between participants and non-participants regarding completion of homework or completion of assignments to their teacher’s satisfaction;
  • For middle school students, grades in most subjects were similar for participants and non-participants, with slightly higher math grades for participants;
  • Although no impact was evident for white participants, black and Hispanic middle school students who used the Centers showed larger grade point improvements and reduced absenteeism;
  • Parental involvement increased.

Sixty-six percent of the schools that host 21st Century Community Learning Centers were considered high-poverty, i.e., at least half their students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Nationally, 17 percent of schools are high-poverty. Center budgets averaged about $1,000 per enrolled student, with programs typically being free for students and parents.

Three out of five center staff members were day school teachers paid an additional $16 to $17 per hour for their after-school services. Although this is a lower rate than for classroom teaching, it is approximately twice the typical compensation rate for a child care provider. One of the early concerns expressed by private and community-based organizations about the Centers was with the amount of money going into the public schools to compete with existing service providers.

Original Plan: Community Centers

The 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program began in 1998 with $40 million awarded to 99 grantees in 34 states, supporting programs in about 36 schools. Although the original aim of the program was to open up the resources of public schools for community members to pursue lifelong learning opportunities in the evenings and on weekends, funding for the program soared when the Clinton administration “re-focused” the Centers as before- and after-school activity centers. (See “Lifelong Learning Plan Hijacked for Clinton Day Care,” School Reform News, May 2000.)

Reauthorized under the No Child Left Behind Act, the program was further restructured to concentrate more attention on the program’s potential for improving academic outcomes, especially for disadvantaged students. The program received $1 billion in 2002 and supports about 6,800 rural and inner city public schools in 1,420 communities.

Although current grants may go only to public schools, partnership efforts with private and community efforts are encouraged. Under changes approved by Congress last year, new funding will be distributed to the states, which then will award grants to schools, community centers or faith-based groups to run after-school centers.

“The evaluation of this program represents the most rigorous examination to date of school-based after-school programs,” said U.S. Undersecretary of Education Eugene Hickok. “This program was designed to address readily apparent needs in our communities, like getting kids off the streets, providing academic services after school, and having constructive and enriching experiences for our children. Thanks to this study, we found areas where we can improve.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The U.S. Department of Education Report, dated January 2003 and titled When Schools Stay Open Late: The National Evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program, is available online at

Information on the law enforcement group, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, is available at