Why we need to invest in keeping the lights on after school

Students at Emlen Elementary School in Mt. Airy

Students at Emlen Elementary School in Mt. Airy

The growing academic achievement gap that separates rich and poor students is being exacerbated by unequal access to tutoring, coaching, and extracurricular activities.

Every October, millions of people across the country come together to shed light on an education issue that receives relatively little attention both here in Philadelphia and throughout the country. One October evening every year, students, families, teachers and youth development professionals host a series of events called Lights on Afterschool that highlight local after-school programs and their growing importance to students’ academic and career outcomes. The growing academic achievement gap that separates rich and poor students is being exacerbated by unequal access to tutoring, coaching, and extracurricular activities. Income-based differences in extracurricular participation are on the rise and are contributing to differences in student success both in school and in later life. The need for schools to keep the lights on and doors open for after-school programs has never been more critical.

With the considerable challenges facing Philadelphia schools between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., focusing on after-school may seem misplaced. But research suggests that extracurricular participation is just as critical as test scores to a student’s educational success and earning potential. The skills, habits, connections, and knowledge that kids develop by participating in art, music, and sports help them gain self-esteem and resilience, and reduce the likelihood that they will engage in risky or criminal behavior. Extracurricular participation has even been linked to higher grades and graduation rates, higher wages, and more opportunities for career advancement, and increased the likelihood of voting and engaging in politics.

The data is not entirely surprising given the preference both college admissions offices and human resources departments give to well-rounded school and job applications. A student who is active outside of school and has amassed an extensive resume is at a significant advantage over the student who shows academic achievement alone. This means that students who have not consistently engaged in extracurricular activities by the time they enter their junior and senior years of high school are poorly positioned to benefit from a college education, regardless of their grades, test scores, or the school they attended.

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Most Philadelphia schools and parents are ill-equipped to prepare students for this educational reality. As budget cuts force districts to reduce spending and as testing pressures and new learning mandates reshape classroom priorities, extra-curricular activities are often the first expenses schools cut. Too many principals feel constrained in their ability to provide the classes that might fuel student interest and creativity by the need to meet more immediate needs. And with the median household income in Philadelphia at $37,460, spending money on after-school activities is a luxury that most families simply cannot afford.

With many Philadelphia schools and families lacking the means to provide access to extracurricular activities, thousands of students would never have access to opportunities for skill development, confidence building, and resume boosting without the work of nonprofit after-school programs. Not only do these programs fill the extracurricular void, they subsidize or entirely absorb the costs that parents and principals would otherwise have to pay. At William D. Kelley School in North Philadelphia and Vare-Washington in South Philadelphia, for example, After-School All-Stars Philadelphia, the organization that I lead, teaches students yoga, guitar, and robotics, among other activities, at no cost to the students or their families and very little cost to the schools we operate in.

Keeping the lights on after school requires more than just showcasing the work of high-quality, after-school programs. It depends heavily on community support. Programs like After-School All-Stars rely on people and institutions willing to invest time and money into keeping children safe and learning during the critical hours between the end of students’ school days and the end of parents’ workdays. I hope that you will join us in celebrating Lights on Afterschool and our efforts to close the opportunity gap affecting too many students in Philadelphia.

Reynelle Brown Staley is the executive director of After-School All-Stars Philadelphia.

Disclosure: WHYY president Bill Marrazzo will be accepting the Bright Star award on behalf of WHYY at After-School All-Stars Philadelphia’s annual Big Dreams Bright Stars dinner on Oct. 20.

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