Schools as Community Learning Centers
The need for increased opportunities for children to learn and develop in safe and drug-free environments outside of regular school hours is clear.
Without affordable, high-quality after-school care available to parents who work, many children must care for themselves or be supervised by older siblings. Lacking constructive community activities to engage them after school, children are vulnerable to drug use and gang involvement outside of school hours.
By keeping neighborhood school buildings open as community learning centers, we give our children opportunities to enhance their learning and be involved in enriching activities in convenient, caring environments.
- Few opportunities exist for young people.
While there has been a growth in the availability of after-school care programs for children over the last 20 years, relatively few organized, extended learning opportunities exist. Seventy percent of all public elementary and combined schools did not offer before- or after-school programs.
- Parents want more access to extended learning opportunities but may face barriers in accessing them.
A 1994 survey of parents found that 56 percent think that many parents leave their children alone too much after school. And principals have long seen a need for extended learning programs; in a 1989 survey, 84 percent of school principals agreed that there is a need for before- and after-school programs.
Studies have identified some barriers to participation(e.g., hours of the program, transportation, concern over program activities and quality), the most frequently mentioned barrier being parents' inability to pay the tuition and fees charged by programs. Other barriers to offering programs include the unwillingness of unions (teacher, paraprofessional, and custodial) to extend the hours of their members and the charging of high rental rates for the use of the school facility.
- Youth are at greatest risk of violence after the regular school day.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, youth between the ages of 12 and 17 are most at risk of committing violent acts and being victims between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., a time when they are not in school at the end of the regular school day.
- Organized activities help children resist unsafe behaviors and enhance learning.
Children under adult supervision in formal programs that exhibit quality indicators (lower student staff ratios, age-appropriate activities, academic and enrichment activities) demonstrate higher academic achievement and better attitudes toward school than children left alone or under the care of siblings.
- Children in quality programs do better in school.
Research indicates that program quality is very important. Students have more positive interactions with staff when student to staff ratios are low, staff are well-trained, and a wide variety of activities are offered. Students in quality programs may have better peer relations and better grades and conduct in school than their peers in other care arrangements.
- Teachers and principals are recognizing the positive effects of good quality programs on their students.
The Cooperative Extension Service found that in programs that had received their assistance, teachers reported that the programs helped the children to become more cooperative, handle conflicts better, develop an interest in recreational reading, and earn better grades. More than one-third of the school principals stated that vandalism in the school decreased as a result of the programs.
- Youth need opportunities outside of the regular school day.
Programs can offer youth the opportunity to be mentored by adults and introduced to new activities that they can master. Research clearly shows that positive and sustained interactions with adults contribute to the overall development of young people and their achievement in school.
By offering a safe learning environment before- and after-school and during the summer, schools can become community learning centers that help children read, learn more, and avoid destructive or dangerous activities.
The programs can be simple, focused on a single goal, and funded by reallocating existing resources. Or they can address an array of conditions, involve many community partners in a systems-building approach, and attract support from many sources.
In both cases, after-school and summer learning opportunities in a safe, drug-free environment can make a profound difference in children's lives.
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