Demand for after-school programs in the U.S. is at an all-time high, but cost, transportation and other factors have prevented millions of families from accessing them, especially families of color and low-income families, according to research by Afterschool Alliance, a nonpartisan, nonprofit that works with program providers across the nation.
After-school and summer learning programs received billions in federal COVID-19 relief funds. But these programs are facing a funding cliff as the September 2024 deadline for states and school districts to commit the remaining funds nears.
“There’s a story to be told about lost opportunities to keep children and youth safe and supervised after the school day ends,” said Jodi Grant, executive director of Afterschool Alliance. “That’s especially important as we try to help students recover academically, socially, and emotionally from the pandemic, and as the funding cliff on pandemic afterschool funding nears.”
Reporters covering this complex topic can focus on trends in after-school care and dive deeply into the newsworthy themes. It’s important to note that after-school care can differ from a typical child care or early learning program due to the hours of operation and ages of children who are served. We’ve compiled some of the most substantial story leads to help you cover the important topic of after-school care.
1. What Is the Current State of After-School Program Funding?
Although cost is a top barrier to after-school program participation, pandemic-relief funds could provide a solution. But states have been slow to spend their ESSER funds (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund), according to Ameshia Cross, director of communications for The Education Trust. The research and advocacy organization is focused on racial and economic barriers in education.
“Allocation toward the programs necessary to protect against pandemic learning loss haven’t been targeted as needed,” she said.
This past September, the U.S Department of Education said states can request extended spending deadlines, but they must have a reason for requesting the extra time. With pandemic-relief funds running out soon, reporters should investigate where ESSER funds have been spent in their state, how much money remains, and what states and school districts will do once the money is gone.
A 2022 Afterschool Alliance report surveyed 1,500 parents and found that 57% said after-school programs were too expensive and that cost was an important factor in their decision not to enroll their child. At the same time, 44% of program providers reported an increase in costs due to COVID-19, citing higher spending on staffing, supplies and food, in part due to supply chain issues.
Grant said she would like to see reporters probe more into the underfunding of after-school and summer learning programs, as well as the disparities that are created as more of the burden of paying for programs falls to parents.
2. Who’s Addressing Increased Demand for After-School Care?
Studies show expanded learning time, which includes before- and after-school programs and summer learning, could provide more support to students, but resource allocation, trained professionals, and individualized curriculum face funding gaps, according to Ed Trust.
Two examples of programs providing that crucial expanded learning time are After School Matters, which has been serving Chicago teens for more than 30 years, and Chicago Youth Centers, which provides early learning, after-school, and summer learning programs.
But not all students have these opportunities. About 24.7 million U.S. children not in an after-school program would be enrolled if a program were available to them – the highest number ever recorded.
Unmet demand for after-school programs is significantly higher among Latino and Black children, according to Afterschool Alliance. For example, 58% of Latino parents and 49% of Black parents reported that after-school programs were not available in their community and said that was an important reason they did not enroll their child, compared with 44% of parents nationally.
“Why, despite this growth in need, are fewer youth served?” Cross said. “With more Black, brown and diverse students in the public education system than the system has ever known, many from low-income and underserved communities, many from undocumented parents, and suffering from mental health or unstable housing as a result of the pandemic, we can’t afford to leave these young people behind.”
3. How Does Job Quality Affect the After-School Program Workforce?
Funding shortfalls and staffing shortages are significant barriers to providing after-school care for children. The federal School Pulse Panel survey found that, of schools providing academic assistance programs, about 37% reported not being able to find enough staff, which limited their ability to offer programs to all students who wanted it.
“The chronic lack of adequate funds for after-school programs, in particular, has made it difficult for programs to pay employees a competitive wage and the benefits they deserve,” Grant said. “In many cases, staff are finding they can earn more at a fast-food restaurant and are leaving the jobs they love working with kids.”
Some camps and summer programs have staff and funding for the summer but not the school year, Grant explained. It can be easier in the summer to hire teachers and older students, but during the school year, working at an after-school program is often a part-time job.
“Many of the programs pay the instructors minimum wage, thereby limiting those who will teach and the amount of classes available,” Cross said. “Many of the after-school programs housed in community centers are not staffed by licensed teachers, and a good portion of those in-school that are supported through 21st Century [Community Learning Centers] programming aren’t either.”
Gina Warner, CEO of the National AfterSchool Association, says the staffing challenges, low pay and lack of benefits all add up to a job quality problem. She encourages reporters to ask state and local leaders what they are doing to create better, higher quality jobs that support staff recruitment and retention in after-school care.
4. How Are After-School Programs Addressing Transportation?
As national bus driver shortages affect schools, it’s worth finding out how they are impacting after-school programs in your area as well.
“Transportation issues absolutely impact participation. Rural areas are particularly impacted by this,” said Warner. “Lack of space for programs and access to transportation for young people to attend are systemic issues that impact summer as well.”
The Afterschool Alliance’s household surveys of parents have consistently found that cost and accessibility of programs, including transportation, are significant barriers to enrollment, and both expenses have increased in recent years.
The organization’s latest survey found that two-thirds of Latino parents (67%), 58% of Black parents, and 52% of parents overall cited transportation as a barrier. At the same time, some after-school programs reported that their transportation costs increased, causing their cost-per-student to rise.
Cross, with Ed Trust, partially attributes the transportation problems to the drop in enrollment in some public schools due to families relocating or choosing charter or other non-traditional community school options. When enough families leave, the schools can close, forcing the remaining students to travel farther for school.
“Enabling funding options or reduced cost [for] public transit could increase after-school program participation,” Cross said.
5. Find After-School Programs That Are Meeting Community Needs
Reporters need to understand the challenges families face and then use this knowledge to evaluate if after-school programs are addressing and meeting parents’ and children’s needs. This approach can help journalists determine how successful a program is in their communities.
“We have connections to programs all over the country,” Grant said, “and are always happy to provide leads and make connections – programs in Colorado that are addressing transportation issues, in Kansas that are bringing the community together to provide dental care and other supports, in Virginia that are introducing youth to civic engagement, in New York City that are making it easy for them to apply to college, and much more.”
Jen Rinehart, senior vice president for Afterschool Alliance, suggested reporters look at BOOST (Building Opportunities in Out-of-School-Time) grants in Georgia. Funded by the American Rescue Plan and administered through the Georgia State Afterschool Network, the program specifically prioritizes after-school and summer learning programs in areas where there wasn’t an existing 21st Century Community Learning Centers program.
BOOST grants also prioritize programs serving underserved communities, such as youth experiencing homelessness and students in families with low incomes. One of the providers, Los Ninos Primero, is offering a majority of its programs for free and provides free transportation.