By Linda Hua
Expanded learning programs are in the news recently because they are the focus of severe cuts in the White House’s proposed budget. RDA has long been invested in supporting these programs. Through evaluation, we have found that these programs provide significant benefits to their communities and the children and families they serve. We have also seen that regular evaluation can help strengthen programs, improve outcomes, and help them meet quality standards.
Expanded learning programs leverage out-of-school time to provide afterschool, before school, summer school, and bridge programs to youth. These programs focus on improving academic achievement and reducing learning loss, learning gaps, and achievement gaps. Afterschool programs, in particular, increase exposure to topics and activities, including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); enrichment programming like arts, crafts, dance, leadership development, and social-emotional self-awareness; and physical activity.
The majority of students who are eligible for expanded learning programs are from communities of color, socio-economically disadvantaged households, and/or are English learners. A recent study shows that over 70% of students in afterschool programs nationwide qualify for the Free or Reduced Meals Program, an indication of severe poverty in the communities in which they live.
Expanded learning program participants, particularly those from vulnerable communities, experience many benefits by engaging in these programs. According to the federal government’s website, Youth.gov, afterschool programs can boost academic performance; improve attendance; reduce drug use, gang involvement, teen pregnancies, and violence; promote physical health; and provide a safe, structured environment for the children of working parents. Studies have shown that afterschool programs can save employers roughly $300 billion on lost productivity by alleviating parents’ concerns about their children’s afterschool care.
RDA has been a member of the Contra Costa County Afterschool-4-All Collaborative for 17 years. RDA began a large part of our work supporting afterschool programs in 1999 when state-funded programs were required to measure and evaluate their program impacts. We provided our partner districts with comprehensive evaluations that included extensive quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis across all stakeholder groups that was not only geared at meeting evaluation mandates, but at improving these programs.
Over time, we have seen dramatic improvements. The California Department of Education has long since removed its extensive evaluation requirements. However, our partner districts continued to engage in evaluation because they experienced the value of using data to inform program planning and improvement. Through our years observing these programs, our evaluators have seen significant shifts in campus climate in which true partnerships have been developed between regular school day faculty and afterschool program staff; in students’ behaviors such that they are increasingly engaged in instruction and they are curious and critical in exploring new experiences; in viewing expanded learning program staff as professionals by engaging them in program planning and investing in their development; and in how youth are increasingly engaged in program planning, fostering leadership development.
The new Quality Standards for Expanded Learning in California require a robust Quality Improvement Plan (QIP), and through evaluation, our partner districts are well situated to meet these requirements. Through the years of engaging in data collection, data review, and data-informed decision making and program planning, our partner districts have grown their evaluation muscles. When faced with the recent requirements to develop and implement site-specific QIPs that require measurable goal setting, stakeholder engagement in program planning, and accountability in implementation, our partner programs were well poised to leverage their ongoing comprehensive program evaluation efforts to accommodate the QIP requirements and take their current data-informed practices to the next level.
We are proud of the work we’ve done with afterschool programs here in California. These programs provide vital education and enrichment programming in safe settings for children of all ages from kindergarten through high school. As the federal budget brings uncertainty to expanded learning providers, we will continue to partner with our clients to conduct robust evaluations that improve programming and show the tangible benefits for students and their families.