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After-School Research Continues to Show Impact

Support will continue for after-school programs if they improve their quality by focusing on management, staffing, curriculum, and evaluation, says a new report from the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards & Student Testing (CRESST).

CRESST, based at the University of California, Los Angeles, has conducted more than two decades of evaluations on out-of-school-time programs, including 21st Century Community Learning Center funded ones, LA's BEST , which I wrote about last spring, and a number of state-funded programs. The report's recommendations are drawn from this research.

According to the report's writers, Denise Huang and Ronald Dietal, key components of quality after-school programs are:

1. Clearly defined program goals and funding that aligns to them.
2. Strong, experienced leadership at sites that are able to effectively communicate and manage staff.
3. Staff members that motivate students and have plans to stay with the program for awhile.
4. A program that is well-aligned to the school day but provides new, different, and engaging learning opportunities for participants.
5. Continual evaluation and assessment of the program and a staff that ensures goals are being met.

The report also offers some recommendations for how to build better after-school programs and adhere to the quality components mentioned. Researchers suggest after-school programs make a continued and extended effort to involve parents, make formal agreements to facilitate collaboration with schools, and specifically hash out plans that take into account space and infrastructure. Additionally, the report outlines several recommendations involving staff: Increase guidelines for professional development, provide incentives to improve staff retention, and help staff increase their knowledge of well-designed content and curriculum to implement in their after-school program.

Many of the recommendations encourage a combined effort of federal, state, and local parties.

"Virtually all the programs we studied had established unambiguous goals and structured their programs to meet those goals," the researchers write. "At the same time, most programs also recognized the importance of considering student voices when making decisions regarding program activities and content; hence, many programs allowed students to provide input. ... As a result, students were engaged and excited to be in the after-school program."

In other research news, Higher Achievement, an organization that operates after-school and summer programs for at-risk middle schoolers in Baltimore, the District of Columbia, and Richmond, Va., released the findings of a two-year longitudinal study that shows their students had strong gains in reading and math standardized-test scores after participating in Higher Achievement's year-round program.

The results not only show academic gains. Students at Higher Achievement sites had higher ambitions about high school and future plans, and there was a rise in parent involvement in the academic lives of the children who participated.

The new findings are part of an ongoing, four-year research project being conducted by Public/Private Ventures and faculty at the University of Texas, Austin. A more comprehensive analysis of both the research results and the program itself will be presented next week at an event on Capitol Hill sponsored by the American Youth Policy Forum.

Higher Achievement, founded in 1975, serves 5th through 8th graders from low-income backgrounds in 650 hour, year-round programs. Students are taught an academic curriculum aligned to state standards in small groups, spend time performing art and recreational activities, work on homework, and are fed dinner. Field trips, career and college mentoring, and community-service projects are also standard components of Higher Achievement's program.

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