TOPICS > Education

Can after-school programs help shrink the ‘opportunity gap’ for low-income students?

July 29, 2014 at 6:28 PM EDT
At Middle School 223 in the Bronx, the fun starts at the end of the regular day. All sixth graders are offered extracurricular activities like African drumming, latin dance and chess, plus personalized help in reading and math. John Tulenko of Learning Matters Television reports on the growing interest in extending the school day with special programs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Most students in the U.S. spend far less time in school than their counterparts in other industrialized countries, and it’s been that way for a long time.

But now, as academic expectations are rising, one idea for improving student achievement that is gaining more attention is extending the school day.

John Tulenko of Learning Matters Television has our report.

JOHN TULENKO: When the school day ends at Middle School 223 in the Bronx, New York, the fun begins. Each day from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m., the school offers all six graders a healthy dose of extracurriculars. There’s African drumming, Latin dance, chess, technology, and more.

PUJA RAO, Executive Director, Arete Education Inc.: I think every student should have the opportunity to have all these experiences available to them.

JOHN TULENKO: Puja Rao is the executive director Arete, a nonprofit that runs the extended day program in Middle School 223, where the majority of students qualify as low-income.

She used to teach math here, but says she recognized the need for a program like this long before that.

PUJA RAO: I came from a low-income family. And it was very much so, if my school wasn’t offering it, I wasn’t getting it. So I wanted to be able to give my students the experiences that I wish I could have had.

JOHN TULENKO: The after-school program isn’t just fun and games. About half the students are also getting personalized help in reading and math.

PUJA RAO: Different kids get what they need for their needs. So, if a kid is struggling and needs more help in math, they can go to math buddies and get that one-on-one help.

JOHN TULENKO: But it’s the fun stuff that get the kids’ attention.

Principal Ramon Gonzalez:

You have been doing this intensive model with sixth grade for a year. What’s been the effect?

RAMON GONZALEZ, Principal, M.S. 223: Kids want to be here. Kids are willing to stay here until 5:00 every day, when they can hang out in the street if they want. They are choosing to stay here. I think it’s because we have these different choices that they can make. And they feel like they’re getting smarter.

JOHN TULENKO: Interest in a longer school day is growing. About 1,000 schools across the country share $1 billion in federal funds earmarked for extended day programs. This program costs about $2,000 per child per year, about half of which comes from private donations.

In the year that it’s been running, principal Gonzalez says school attendance has increased. Proponents cite a long list of other benefits. Kids are safe, they exercise, they’re fit, they’re learning valuable social and emotional lessons, and they like it.

LUCY N. FRIEDMAN, President, The After-School Corporation: After school, you walk into a classroom and the kids are excited about what they’re doing, and it’s 4:00 on a Friday and they’re all raising their hands, that, to me, is success.

JOHN TULENKO: Lucy Friedman is president of the After-School Corporation, which provides financial support and guidance to schools that ant to start extended day programs, including Middle School 223. The students her students serve, Friedman argues, face more than an achievement gap.

Lucy, you have written about something you call the opportunity gap. What are you talking about?

LUCY N. FRIEDMAN: By sixth grade, disadvantaged kids have had 6,000 less hours of learning, learning, you know, what happens in preschool, but also what happens when your families take you to the beach or the zoo, summer camps, after-school programs.

And so, really, that’s what we want to do is open kids’ eyes, expose them to new kinds of activities and to new parts of themselves.

JOHN TULENKO: But at many public schools, closing the opportunity gap is a new mission. For more than a decade, schools have been cramming on academics in an effort to raise scores, especially in low-income schools.

RAMON GONZALEZ: I think what we have seen in our poorest neighborhood, that’s what it has become. It’s become test prep academies and we have taken out the arts and we have taken out the sports, with the idea that, if we just focus on academics, somehow, miraculously, these kids will be at the same level in three years.

And what we found is, that has worked for some kids, but for the majority of kids, it has not worked. The gap still remains.

JOHN TULENKO: But even here, extracurricular activities can feel like an afterthought.

What do they get in the way of art, music, dance, drama during the regular school day?

ALISSA ROGANOVIC, Math Teacher, M.S. 223: There isn’t much.

JOHN TULENKO: Many of Alissa Roganovic’s students find it hard not to drift off in a schedule dominated by academics.

ALISSA ROGANOVIC: They have 40 periods a week of instruction. Five of them are lunch. And then you take eight for math, 10 for ELA, five for science, five for social studies, five for technology, and you’re left with — and you’re left with two periods for gym. Unfortunately, a lot of that has to do with the tests that we’re required to prepare the students for.

JOHN TULENKO: Even with the focus on academics, math and reading scores here, while slightly better than in most New York City schools, are low; 75 percent of the students at Middle School 223 scored below proficient. That’s where the after-school tutoring comes in.

WOMAN: So now what is the formula?

JOHN TULENKO: Are they getting better at math?

ALISSA ROGANOVIC: They are. They’re getting better because their attitude is changing, because they’re getting some of the questions answered that are — in a class of 30 or when they’re at home they aren’t necessarily getting answered.

JOHN TULENKO: Although quality varies, research shows most after-school programs have a positive effect on student performance. But is waiting until the end of the day to catch kids up and give them fun activities they look forward to overlooking the real problem?

We asked Lucy Friedman of the After-School Corporation.

I would like to play around and give you an analogy, if I may.




JOHN TULENKO: Imagine schools as restaurants, there to serve nutrition food. The way we do it now, only about half of the kids get a nutritious meal. You all come in at the end of the day and you provide that nutrition, which is important. But someone could argue that you really ought to be more focused on the menu during the regular school day.

LUCY N. FRIEDMAN: Why aren’t we?  Because — because we think this is a way. I mean, partly, it’s who we are, right?  We — I mean, there are a lot of people who are putting a lot of effort into the front end.

RAMON GONZALEZ: I think with the ingredients we have, we are working on serving the best meal. We are reaching that point. But the reality is that, even as we’re crafting this menu of these great things, it’s still not enough, because our kids have not eaten for years. And so we’re trying to make up some of those nutrients, using your analogy, that they have lost along the way.

JOHN TULENKO: With the focus on tests, it’s unlikely the menu for the regular school day will change, but the dessert will get richer. New York State recently handed over $7.6 million to create more after-school programs like the one at Middle School 223. That’s on top of $145 million already pledged by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.