Commentary: Why after school programs are so critical for Texas

This afternoon at 3 p.m., while the Texas Legislature is busy debating important public policy, our students will get out of school and go … where?

Approximately 880,000 Texas students are currently involved in after-school programs at their school, community center or local nonprofit, where they engage in tutoring, enrichment, fun and physical activity. Unfortunately, these opportunities are not available to many of our students. According to a recent survey, an additional 1.5 million Texas youth would participate if an after-school program if one were available in their community.

More than 935,000 Texas school children are unsupervised in the critical hours after school, when experimentation with illegal substances and sex is most common. Peak hours for juvenile crime? 3 to 6 p.m.

The problem is not just after school; summer is another critical time for positive youth development. Working parents across the state will be scrambling in the coming months to find something productive for their kids to do over the summer, with dire consequences if they do not. Data shows that economically disadvantaged students experience “summer learning loss” — falling behind in academics — at higher rates than their peers who have access to museums, camps, travel and other educational activities during those months.

Some programs charge fees that some parents are able to pay; but many students are left out of programs simply because their families cannot afford them. There are federal dollars serving some low-income students, but not nearly enough to keep up with the demand. A federal funding cycle that served 8,500 students at 53 Austin-area schools ended last summer. Emergency funding from the city helped to continue basic services in some areas, but a long-term, sustainable funding model is needed in order to reach all youth who wish to participate and ensure continuity of high-quality programs.

Philanthropists realize the potential in “expanded learning opportunities” during the hours after school and in the summer. In Central Texas, the Andy Roddick Foundation and KDK-Harman Foundation are both heavily invested in direct service programming and leading efforts for a sustainable, data-driven, communitywide system of services.

Parent fees, federal and local government, and private philanthropy are all playing a part, but the State of Texas has a much larger role to play in ensuring that these programs are available, affordable and high-quality for all Texas kids.

The Texas Expanded Learning Opportunities Council was created by the 83rd Texas Legislature to address critical times for learning outside of the school day. The 13-member council includes teachers, school district officials, after-school and summer program providers, parents, and business and philanthropy representatives from across the state. Their report published last fall found that high-quality expanded learning opportunities during the hours after school and in the summer result in improved educational outcomes and safer communities.

In fact, decades of research links participation in after-school programs with academic gains, including closing the achievement gap between low-income students and their high-income classmates and addressing summer learning loss. Due to these overwhelming facts, the council has recommended an Expanded Learning Opportunities Initiative so more Texas students can benefit from high-quality programs outside the traditional school day.

The Texas Legislature should carefully consider the council’s recommendation and adopt the Expanded Learning Opportunities Initiative rider under consideration. It would create a competitive grant program at the Texas Education Agency while providing training and technical assistance, statewide coordination, and evaluation to make sure the programs are high-quality and dollars are spent wisely.

It’s time to supplement existing public and private investments in after-school and summer programs with state funding to help more underserved Texas students access the expanded learning opportunities they deserve.

Roddick is a retired professional tennis player and founder of the Andy Roddick Foundation, which works with its community to expand opportunities for young people to learn, thrive and succeed. Clayton is the first Executive Director of the Texas Partnership for Out of School Time.

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