An after-school program in Salem, MA, uses enriching, project-based learning to contextualize education through real-world experiences. LEAP (Learn, Explore, Aspire, Pursue) for Education helps low-income students, English-language learners, and first-generation college-bound students succeed in middle and high school. 

The ultimate goal of the program is to have all kids graduate from high school with a college and career plan that speaks to their aspirations and to help them eventually earn a college degree. A few suburbs away, the Malden YMCA, which hosts a STEM summer program in Malden, MA, has kids engaged in a computer-coding program called Zero Robotics. In Zero Robotics, students study coding and participate in a live competition of moving satellites on the International Space Station (ISS), with ISS astronauts observing the game. 

Essential Enrichment

For the students at LEAP and the Malden YMCA—and the thousands of others attending after-school programs—the enrichment they receive is an essential key to their success in school. We have seen much progress over the past decade in the number of children who are able to take advantage of the opportunities and activities after-school programs have to offer. And what a relief for working parents—the hours between 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. are no longer a time of anxiety, but instead have become a time of learning and advancement for students. 

By embracing the opportunities for after-school and summer learning, realizing constraints such as transportation and other extracurricular activities, principals can see their student successes soar. Research shows that access to high-quality after-school programs results in higher student test scores, increased graduation rates, improved classroom behavior, and engagement of the “hard-to-​engage” student.

The Role of Principals

The solution to a well-rounded education is right there in your community. If you’re a principal who wants to give every student the best shot at success, consider partnering with your community-based after-school and summer programs.

“LEAP has partnered with the city in many state and private grants that provide experiential, student-centered learning to students of all ages,” says Linda Saris, executive director of LEAP for Education. “Salem shows a unique commitment to extended-day learning and community partnerships, and works hard to make sure that all students have equal access to a variety of youth programs.” 

Ask yourself: Have you partnered with community programs seeking private grants? Funding is out there to help your kids! For principals who are open to sharing information and value the perspective of educators outside of the school, this investment will pay off in student outcomes. Relationship-building isn’t always easy, but I guarantee that there are people running programs in your district who, if invited, will come to your meeting in a heartbeat and will want to support your mission.

Educational Progress 

After-school and summer programs have more to offer than just enrichment. If your state is anything like Massachusetts, you may have a solid record in educational progress, but there is still a sizable achievement gap between lower-income students and their higher-income peers. The school day alone has not moved the meter in this area. 

This is why many districts have decided to tackle this issue through a mixed delivery system that includes investment in high-quality after-school and summer learning programs to supplement in-school curriculum. Data shows the positive impact this can have—increasing student scores in math and science, improving attendance, increasing literacy proficiency, and fostering better relationships between students and their peers (and with adults). Research indicates that after-school and summer courses can and do mitigate the achievement gap, especially for English-language learners.

These types of programs are also a low-cost and effective option for promoting students’ school and life success, such as helping students pursue college and a career path in a strategic way. The fluid nature of after-school and summer learning programs allows schools to mold the system to fit their needs. Massachusetts schools are thinking of new ways to integrate community-based organizations into their strategic planning process. This includes counting on after-school programs for homework help, enrichment in arts and music, health and wellness, and service learning-giving students the opportunity to identify community concerns and fashion team-based solutions. All of these 21st-century skills—problem solving, teamwork, critical thinking, and self-regulation—are essential for student achievement. And they are necessary for preparing students for the jobs of today and tomorrow.

As you read this, school is almost out for the summer. And while some of your students will enjoy family vacations, trips to the beach and museums, and other fun activities, others will experience none of that. Summer learning loss will mean that students will fall behind in key subject areas, such as reading and math. Now is the time to start investigating where the summer programs are in your district and reaching out to them for your students. Promote the offerings well. Let the community know that summer programs are not just for kids who failed during the year—these programs are engaging and enriching. They inspire learning! They keep kids safe and provide the support families need to keep working. 

The demand for summer programs far exceeds the current rate of availability, but there are things you can do. First, you have a building—brick and mortar. Work with your community partners to provide programs in your school. Seek federal grant funding to set up your own 21st Century Community Learning Center (a Department of Education-sponsored center that “offers students a broad array of enrichment activities that can complement their regular academic programs in the summer”). Encourage your community partners to hire your teachers for the summer program or reach beyond your building and find out about programs in the community to help kids become engaged learners. 

For teens, being engaged outside of school takes on added importance in their development. Share information about your students so that programs are tailored to the needs of your kids. Advocate for funding for the summer—85 percent of all parents support public funding for summer learning programs. And tap into your natural constituency at your school—parents. Ask them to join your cause for summer learning.

As a country, we have more progress to make to increase the availability and quality of after-school and summer programs. Principals have a significant role to play to help the approximately 19.4 million children across the United States who would participate in an after-school program, if one were available to them. Prioritize after-school and summer learning as part of a full education agenda. Explore and enjoy the support of your community partners. You and your students will be proud of the results. 

Ardith Wieworka is the chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Afterschool Partnership, a nonprofit advocacy group in Boston.

Making It Work

Tips for implementing successful after-school programs:

  1. Invite your community-based after-school operators in for a meeting. Find common ground, partner to access private grant funding, and tailor programs to your students’ needs.
  2. Use your building after the school bell rings and when school is out for summer. Programs need space. Your kids need programs. Develop ways to use your physical space as a place where kids can learn. Find out what’s in your community, as happenings outside of school speak to teens.
  3. Ask your community partners to hire your teachers. Don’t let summer learning slide—kids forgetting a portion of what they learn during the academic year can ruin your plans for September.