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Access and Sustainability Bedevil Rural Out-of-School Programs

After-school and out-of-school-time programs in high poverty, rural communities have some of the same positive effects on children that after-school programs elsewhere have had, but rural programs face unique challenges that their high-poverty peers in urban and suburban areas do not, according to the Harvard Family Research Project.

The findings are from the recent report, "Out-of-School Time Programs in Rural Areas," which concludes that such programs have significant struggles— particularly with access for children and availability of resources to sustain the program sites.

Researchers at the project, a Harvard-supported organization that evaluates and advises initiatives and large organizations that serve youths, families, and communities, examined existing studies on rural OST programs throughout the country and identified some of the greatest challenges rural areas face in implementing these programs, along with strategies to combat them.

Many rural communities find transportation a large burden in implementing OST programs—how to get children to program sites and back home—the report says. Training and retaining program staff without sufficient professional-development services and inadequate access to private funding and infrastructure to support programs, as well as other community resources, were also problems for these communities, the report found.

But the risks rural children face without these programs may also differ from the risks children in high-poverty urban areas face, said Soumya Bhat, a senior program associate with The Finance Project, one of the authors of another report,"Financing and Sustaining Out-of-School Time Programs in Rural Communities," from 2008. Rural children typically have less access to programs, and this lack of exposure can mean they do not acquire 21st-century skills or cultural and cognitive awareness, Bhat told me. The programs themselves also have a much lower tax base to draw from and often lower eligibility for public funding streams to expand.

I sent Bhat a few questions on her research and suggestions for improving rural OST programs in light of the new Harvard report. Her responses:

EW: What has changed, if anything, since the report came out in 2008 in terms of these issues?
SB: If anything, the issues faced by rural OST programs have only intensified with the economic downturn, higher gas prices, and uncertainty around various federal funding streams. On the positive side, the federal 2010 Child Nutrition Reauthorization. expanded after-school meals for at-risk children in the Child and Adult Care Food Program from 14 states to all states. [Also] the National Center on Research in Rural Education, funded in 2009 by the Institute of Education Sciences, is now addressing issues of after-school programming in rural communities and should offer new findings on elements of high-quality after-school programming that supports academic success for rural students.

EW: What small-scale changes do you recommend be undertaken to help OST programs in rural communities become more effective?
SB: Rural programs may benefit by examining their administrative costs and potentially developing partnerships or seeking out in-kind resources to reduce these costs and expand their capacity. By sharing space, staff, or equipment with another organization, programs can free up resources for their programming. Rural programs will also need to form strong partnerships with other community-based organizations, county government services, and private funders to maximize resources to address needs of children and youth holistically.

EW: How can rural communities strengthen professional-development services to improve the quality of staff at these programs with more-limited resources?
SB: While trainings and conferences may be too expensive or far away for rural OST practitioners to attend in person, increased use of technology and distance learning can allow them to network, share, or take advantage of professional-development offerings.

EW: How can private partnerships improve in these areas when there are fewer sources to access?
SB: Public-private partnerships can be a challenge for rural areas, but careful planning with the right partners, however few, can pay off. Successful partnerships set clear goals, focus on results, involve diverse groups, and play to the strengths of each partner.

EW: Do you think new models for OST programs in rural areas need to be developed to meet the unique needs of rural populations?
SB: Research and funding to identify effective models and standards for high-quality after-school programs are needed so that programs can be designed that address unique issues. For example, in 2009 a bill, HR 3078, was introduced in Congress to address investments in rural after-school programs, and would have provided dedicated funding to support the expansion of quality programs in rural areas. The bill, however, was not passed. Given the federal deficit and uncertainty with 21st Century Community Learning Centers' dedicated funding (a high proportion of which goes to rural communities), the lack of opportunities to identify and scale up effective models of after-school programming may exacerbate the problems [for rural OST programs] in coming years.

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