The afterthought of after school

Youth programs are an investment that should not be ignored

PeppNation gives students opportunity to exercise and meet mentors who support their education. (Photo by Wyatt Massey)

Dozens of youth scurry across the gym floor at Hephatha Lutheran Church, burning off the day’s energy. Cheerful games of tag and pickup basketball echo through the building. Everyone is moving. It looks like chaos from the sideline. For the man standing in the middle of it, channeling that energy is more than a passion, its his full-time job.

Brandon Culpepper is the director of the youth-mentoring camp PeppNation. The program teaches students non-traditional sports, such as rugby or lacrosse, to bridge community divides through sports. Each practice includes Culpepper asking students about the importance of academics in achieving goals. He stresses that academic success translates to success on the field next week or on the job in 10 years.

PeppNation provides a safe environment after the school day. It removes the burden for parents of finding childcare for several extra hours, allows youth to exercise and brings children together throughout Southeast Wisconsin. Yet, Culpepper struggles to find schools willing to participate.

He is caught in the middle of school budget cuts, as are many after-school programs. These programs are at risk of becoming an afterthought.

Infographic by Afterschool Alliance

School administrations, especially those that are under-funded and under-staffed, must focus on keeping the school running. The main goal of the stressed system becomes moving students from grade to grade and, hopefully, to college. It cannot spare the time or money to offer after-school programming. The Wisconsin school systems may soon need to do all of this with less money, too.

If that is the case, after-school opportunities will diminish. The time following the final ring of the school bell is crucial and, too often, wasted.

The initial hours after school are critical for youth safety. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reports that one in five violent crimes involving people under the age of 18 occur between 3 and 7 p.m. Programs like PeppNation use this time for exercise and teaching life skills.

Obesity affects one in three children in the United States. The next generation could be the first ever to die younger than their parents. Not only does a program like PeppNation use the hours after school to promote exercise, studies show that regular physical activity benefits learning.

Schools have told Culpepper that they cannot spare the time to meet. If this is the case, children cannot reap the benefits of his program. A lack of communication between schools and programs forces parents to seek out safe and meaningful opportunities on their own; and not every program offers the same level of quality.

The Future of Children, a group that synthesizes social science research to inform child public policy, investigated the promises and challenges of after-school programs.They found that two-thirds of programs failed to meet standards of quality in staffing, finances and facilities.

One hang-up for schools to partner with after-school programs can be the costs of sharing the space. While hosting a schools saves on transportation costs and planning, janitorial staff and security must be paid for extra hours. These prices can be offset by a program’s advantages, though.

In terms of economics, the benefits of a diverse range of after-school options far outweigh the costs. Researchers evaluating LA’s BEST, a youth enrichment program, estimated that the city saved $2.50 in crime-related expenses for every dollar invested in the program.

The other major issue in after-school programming is finances, which presents a problem on two fronts. First, program budgets are not adequate. An Afterschool Alliance survey noted that 57 percent of programs reported having an inadequate budget to meet community needs.

Second, if the greatest need for programming is in areas of low income, the costs of participation may stand as the ultimate barrier. Organizations such as American Savings Foundation or Charles Stewart Mott Foundation offer grants to cover costs. These grants are limited in number and size, though. High competition often forces programs to seek funding in other ways.

Direct donations to after-school programs can result in subsidized or free costs of participation. It can also lead to better staffing, more opportunities for participants and ease the hard-to-cover costs of administrative overhead. Communities benefit in each scenario. Supporting these initiatives provides long-term benefits for all. It decreases risky behaviors and builds self-esteem and healthy habits in the next generation.

Wyatt Massey is a human rights journalist, community advocate and self-diagnosed health nut. He is a student at Marquette University, studying Writing-Intensive English and Advertising.

Connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.