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Girl Talk: How After-School Programs Can Help Females

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At a webinar this week hosted by the Afterschool Alliance, representatives from Girl Scouts of the USA and the girls-empowerment program Girls, Inc. discussed how after-school programs can help young females become healthy, educated, and independent adults. Step one, the speakers agreed: Program staff must believe that girls can do anything.

While progress is evident on a number of girls' issues—their educational attainment has increased and the teen birth rate is at its lowest recorded level, for example—not all girls have made the same amount of progress, one of the speakers, Kamla Modi, a research and outreach analyst with theĀ Girl Scout Research Institute, said.

A 2013 report Girls Scouts of the USA conducted with the Population Bureau found that a larger share of females are graduating from high school than males, and they outnumber men at college, but 16 percent of Latina girls drop out of high school, more than twice the national average (of 7 percent for girls and 9 percent for boys), Modi said. Higher poverty rates among African American and Latina girls also create a disparity in access to good healthcare and general wellness.

Other concerns include the fact that leadership is not a top goal for girls, Modi said. Only 39 percent nationwide say they "want to be a leader," according to Girl Scouts research. African American girls and Latina girls are more open to the idea than white girls, with 53 percent of blacks and 50 percent of Latinas saying they want to be leaders.

Staff attitudes towards girls at after-school and summer programs can have a big impact, Brenda Stegall, the director of program and training services for Girls Inc., observed.

"Girls ... have the right to express themselves with originality and enthusiasm," she said. "As a youth worker or educator, you can ask girls for their opinion, encourage healthy debate on issues, and acknowledge their good thinking. We also want girls to take risks, to strive freely, and take pride in success. To do this, we really need to avoid rescuing girls and encourage them to make an imperfect product, to get dirty, disheveled, and sweaty in pursuit of a goal, and then to make big, interesting mistakes."

Other program features Girls Inc. has found helpful in developing strong, smart, and bold young women, according to Stegall, include: providing a girls-only environment in which females feel comfortable speaking with each other and adult mentors; activities that are hands-on, challenging, and fun; and long-term participation in programs that build up their skills and help them make positive choices.

"We have to provide intentional experiences and opportunities that broaden girls' horizons and counter stereotypes," Stegall said. "Just coming in for the afternoon and playing all day or sitting and talking all day doesn't really get us where we need to go."

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