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After-School Program With Focus on Mentors Leads to Academic Gains

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An after-school and summer program that features mentors to help disadvantaged middle-school students produced substantial and sustained academic gains for participating students in math, according to a recent study. Some gains were also seen in reading, but they did not persist over time.

Students who participated in the Higher Achievement program saw improved test scores and were also more likely to apply to and attend well-regarded private high schools, notes the study, published this month by the research group MDRC.The study focused on four Higher Achievement programs operated in the District of Columbia and another in nearby Alexandria, Va. The analysis was conducted by a group called Private/Public Ventures in cooperation with researcher Leigh Linden from the University of Texas at Austin.

The study is billed as one of only a few large-scale, randomized, controlled studies on out-of-school programs. Nearly 1,000 students participated in the four-year study.

Students in the Higher Achievement program attended an arts or recreational extracurricular activity and were teamed up with mentors who tutored them and helped with homework three days a week. One day each week was focused on math, literature or a seminar. Topics for the seminar included technology, creative writing, and conflict resolution. Toward the end of middle school, the focus of the program shifted to submitting high school applications. The summer academy took place five days a week and included regular classes as well as electives such as martial arts, sculpture, and chess.

The researchers cautioned that academics gains seen in both math and reading comprehension took more than a year to materialize and were not as dramatic as with some other more expensive, comprehensive "whole school" programs such as the KIPP schools. In addition, the reading gains were not sustained four years after students enrolled in the program, when there was no difference between those who participated and the control group. All students included in the analysis were deemed to be disadvantaged but highly motivated.

Even so, the authors of the report said that the findings show that there is promise in getting students involved in these types of after-school programs during the critical middle school years.

"This evaluation provides rigorous evidence that intensive OST programs like Higher Achievement can produce results," the study says. "The program successfully engages middle school youth and retains sizable numbers of them for multiple years."

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