Effective Program Design in the Scaling-up of Out-of-School-Time Programs

Analyzing the success of educational programs is often tricky. There is often a mix of quantitative data that can be analyzed, often in the form of standardized test scores or report cards, as well as qualitative data such as feedback from parents, teachers, students or social-workers. Furthermore, especially in cases where the student or teacher population is culturally diverse, everyone has their own opinions about what is necessary for an effective classroom. Accurate analysis of why some schools appear to be more effective can be difficult due to the number of extraneous variables-including family size, income, race, or native language-which may have an impact on how well students learn.

In 2001, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 was renamed No Child Left Behind (NCLB). One key component of the 1965 ESEA was the provision of quality educational assistance to low-income families to help break the cycle of poverty (Schugurensky 2002). The passing of the ESEA led to the creation of preschool programs such as Head Start to help reduce the already present achievement gap between the poor and more affluent families. NCLB, in turn, proposed several additional methods to reduce the achievement gap including increased accountability, revised standards of teacher qualifications, and higher educational standards.

One noteworthy inclusion in NCLB is the provision of funds of almost $1 billion annually for out-of-school-time programs (forthwith referred to as OST programs) called 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st-CCLC) (Budget of the United States government). Broadly defined, a community learning center is:

an entity that assists students in meeting State and local academic achievement standards in core academic subjects, such as reading and mathematics, by providing the students with opportunities for academic enrichment activities and a broad array of other activities during nonschool hours or periods when school is not in session (such as before and afterschool or during summer recess). (Frequently asked questions).

With the federal government promoting the creation of 21st-CCLC programs and with the number and variety of OST programs publicly and privately available, the educational significance of OST programs in narrowing the achievement gap is of interest.

This paper will present some elements which go into creating and managing a high-quality OST program that improves educational access to educationally disadvantaged individuals. More specifically, this paper will serve as the foundation of a larger study that will explore the requirements for the successful scaling-up of existing OST programs to meet the existing demand and needs for OST programming. It will begin by explaining some traditionally held views regarding the significance of OST programming. This will be followed by an overview of proposed program-design standards that contribute to more effective OST programming. Finally, it will look at the challenges or implications of these standards on scaling-up access to OST programs.

The rise in the number of OST programs available can often be explained in socioeconomic terms. As the number of single-parent families increases, the divorce rate rises, or both parents spend more of their time at one or more jobs, the need for quality OST care increases (Zhang & Byrd, 2005). In a sense, it is not necessarily the case that parents today do not care as much as older generations did about the welfare of their children; it is more likely the case that parents today simply do not spend as much time at home as they did in the past. This problem is further impacted by income, with parents in lower-income families working longer hours with fewer benefits such as paid vacation or the flexibility to take days off to care for their children if the need arises (Miller, 2003).

Child safety is often the most cited reason for the need of OST programs; children who are unsupervised in the hours between the end of the school day and the time that their parents are home from work are more likely to be at risk than children engaged in productive activities. Findings by the US Department of Justice and the US Department of Education show that these afternoon hours are the hours during which most youth begin experimenting with drug use, sexual activity, gang activity, or crime (Carter, 2003; Vinluan, 2005). The harm does not only come in the form of group activity, but can also come in the form of unsupervised individual access to media such as television programs, video-games, or internet sites which may be inappropriate for youth. Sometimes collective referred to as “screen time,” excessive unsupervised exposure to screen media has been shown to result in lower standardized reading test scores, contribute to health problems like obesity, and contribute to more aggressive behavior (Miller, 2003).

In addition to safety, however, OST programs are also important because they encourage children to take different approaches towards learning. One significant difference usually comes in the form of the teaching method or the learning experience. OST programs are more likely to cater towards kinesthetic or visual learners, helping make up for the largely auditory learning experiences they may be exposed to at school; this alternative approach, consequently, may encourage some children to develop an interest in learning (Beck, 1996). In fact, the diversity of what individual learners can gain from OST programs has been cited as being perhaps more significant than the actual educational gains from participating in such programs. According to one recent report (Massachusetts After-School Research Study [MARS], 2005):

it is not clear that expecting programs to have direct academic effects is a fruitful avenue for the afterschool field in general. There is a growing consensus that, while afterschool programs can contribute to improving academic achievement, they are best suited to support development in what might be termed the “prerequisites” for academic success.” (p. 2).

These prerequisites can include improved self-esteem, the development of leadership skills, and better behavior management.

Safety can also be seen from the program design perspective. As one can imagine, a poorly designed OST program can be almost equally damaging to children as leaving them unsupervised could be. Many similar problems-including poor diet, feeling neglected or insecure, not completing work, or not getting enough physical activity-can occur within a poorly structured OST program. Considering the potential number of hours participants may spend at an after school program each week, the program becomes, in a way, part of their “homes” so a program design that allows participants to feel comfortable is very important (Hall et al., 2003).

Keeping the above in mind, how does one create a safe OST program environment that supports positive youth development? What are some elements of effective program design standards, and can they, indeed, be generalized as standards in the OST workplace? What are the challenges associated with implementing these suggested standards?

Going beyond safety, there are a number of other program design considerations worth mentioning. In attempting to reinforce the prerequisites for success, it is important for OST programs to provide a setting in which a participant can develop significant positive relationships both among peers and between participants and adults. There are many programs which focus simply on providing positive role models-mentor programs-to help children become more confident expressing themselves. Positive reinforcement may also be lacking from their regular school-day activities or even in the home, and providing this reinforcement at an OST program can have long-lasting positive social effects on participants. OST programs can also be a perfect opportunity for a participant to have increased social opportunities by spending time with peers who may be from different schools or of different ages.

In conjunction with the creation of positive relationships, especially between participants and staff, OST programs are usually in a unique situation where they are able to offer very individualized instruction. This may be in the form of homework assistance, or in the form of special projects which serve to develop a participant’s interest. It is important, however, that these projects serve a clearly defined objective. This is not to say that programming should be restrictive or the approach towards the delivery of the lesson should be uniform, but rather that the instructor should be able to identify the significance of the work they are doing (Hall et al., 2003).

In cases where a relationship between the participant and staff has been well established, the participant should clearly understand that the expectations for success are high. Higher expectations often lead to increased motivation, especially if the participant can be assured that failure will not result in dissatisfaction or punishment (MARS, 2005). To ensure flexibility, OST program staff should try to make their projects both challenging and relevant. Offering participants challenges can show participants that the program staff has confidence in them and also allows the participant an opportunity to try to find a new or different way to do something. Success in a particularly challenging project also boosts participants’ confidence in their abilities. Making sure that projects are also relevant gives students a chance to “own” their work, and encourages students to have the initiative to achieve things on their own (Hall et al., 2003).

For older participants in OST programs, the feeling that they have a voice or that they have ownership of certain elements of the program can also help contribute to the prerequisites for academic success. This goes beyond having them decide which activities they want to partake in and having them take active leadership or decision-making roles. Allowing older OST program participants these sorts of choices can also help improve their confidence while naturally helping develop their leadership skills.

In addition to the above recommendations for OST program design, OST program staff-or at minimum, the OST program coordinator-should also keep current with basic care programs in the community. These community services can be used when program staff encounter problem they are not qualified to deal with and can include services for emotional well-being, health, or family services. In addition to these services, the OST program should also be able to provide a well-maintained comprehensive collection of local networking resources that can help participants both during and upon completion of the program. These can include apprenticeships or other extracurricular activities such as art or sports that may not be a priority for the OST program (Hall et al., 2003). Being able to accurately refer a participant to a community service that they ultimately find helpful helps build trust and reinforces their impression that someone is genuinely concerned with their wellbeing. Both of these are significant in the development of a foundation for personal success.

As can be seen above, many of the above recommendations are not concerned with academic requirements. The assumption is that providing OST program participants an environment that exhibits these characteristics will provide participants an environment that contributes to the development of empowering skills. As mentioned earlier, building up these skills will ultimately lead to participants who are more interested in learning and more confident of their abilities to excel.

Many of the recommendations for improving OST programs may appear to be simple, obvious suggestions, yet they are not all commonplace in OST program environments. In fact, integration of these qualities in OST programming can be quite challenging for several reasons. The most obvious restriction for many OST programs would be funding. Insufficient funding can have negative consequences on staff development, space for program operations, or insufficient resources for activities. Staffing concerns are further compounded by a shortage of people willing to work at OST programs either because of reduced hours-many of the jobs are part-time-or because of lower pay than regular teaching jobs. Additionally, at an OST program, the educators often come from a range of backgrounds including retired volunteers, college students, or even high-school students. While this diversity is often good for participants in terms of giving them more opportunities to connect with a caring adult, it also puts a strain on the OST program from a managerial perspective of matching the skills of the educators with the needs of the participants. Effectively utilizing a diverse group of educators also requires a greater commitment in the OST program design for standardizing the program objectives to ensure continuity in programming.

Obtaining funds for OST programs can be a major problem in itself. OST programs are still not uniformly recognized as significant educational institutions; as mentioned earlier in this paper, looking for a direct relationship between OST programming and improved academic performance may not be the wisest part to take to begin with. Because the educational importance of OST programs are in question, responsible OST programs also need to create a system of accountability and data collection that can be used to merit the need for further funding. As OST programs scale-up, these measures of accountability can also be used internally to ensure a consistent level of quality within the program. A program is more likely to receive funding if it can exhibit both that it is growing as well as that it is consistently achieving positive outcomes.

In some cases, even with funding, certain elements of OST programming such as space restrictions still cannot be adequately addressed. In these cases, strengthening the network of community resources becomes even more important for programs which are growing. Although the approach is very time and management intensive, coordinating with other OST programs which offer programs with different areas of specialization is one approach that can allow programs to offer different activities in the short run. An academically oriented OST program, for example, may not be adequately equipped with the space for physical activities; coordinating with another OST program that has access to a gym may help the academic OST program in the short run as well as help develop a stronger sense of community.

As mentioned in the beginning of this paper, analyzing the success of educational programs is tricky. Additionally, the OST educational environment is increasingly being viewed as a significant agent for reducing the education gap that exists in education in the United States-so much so that the federal government has earmarked significant funds in the budget for the operation of OST programs. With the wide range in the types of OST programs available, and with the number of students participating in these programs increasing each year, it is important to be able to ensure that the scaling-up of program services does not come at the cost of a reduction in the quality of services being offered.


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  • Budget of the United States government: Fiscal year 2007. (2006). [Education section].
  • Carter, J. B. (2003). Factors that influence afterschool care: Program coordinators’ job performance as it relates to documentation of accountability in the National School Lunch Program snack service. (UMI No. 3103648).
  • Frequently asked questions — 21st Century Community Learning Centers. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18, 2006 from http://www.ed.gov/programs/21stcclc/faq.html.
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  • Schugurensky, D. (2002). Elementary and Secondary School Act, the ‘War on Poverty’ and Title 1. In D. Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century. Retrieved February 18, 2006 from http://fcis.oise.utoronto.ca/~dschugurensky/assignment1/1965elemsec.html.
  • Vinluan, M. H. (2005). After-school programs alter lives of at-risk youth. Parks & Recreation, 40(8). Retrieved from Research Library database.
  • Zhang, J. J., & Byrd, C. E. (2005). Enhancing the quality of after school programs through effective program management. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 76(8). Retrieved from Research Library database.
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