Cities Should Embrace After-School Learning

May 2, 2013

By Christopher Coleman, Karl Dean, James Mitchell Jr., Betsy Price, and Ronnie Steine

As first appeared in Education Week April 24, 2013. Reprinted with permission from the authors.

  

No longer can leaders of American cities be spectators when it comes to ensuring that our children have the education and skills necessary to succeed in school and life. Competition for jobs within the United States, let alone across the world, is at an all-time high.

For our cities to remain beacons of hope, it is our responsibility as municipal leaders to help young people develop the skills and talents they need to find gainful employment and become successful adults in a knowledge-based economy. City leaders must work together with schools, parents, and others to help young people thrive, with a shared understanding that their success will determine the success of our cities.

Maximizing the after-school hours is one important way in which city governments can improve educational outcomes for children and teenagers and reinforce what they learn in the classroom. We know that children spend about 80 percent of their time outside of school. How is that time used?

As mayors and city council members, we have a unique bully pulpit from which to promote the after-school hours as a time of enrichment and learning. In collaboration with other local partners, we can work collectively to provide all young people in our communities with access to high-quality after-school and expanded-learning opportunities.

Over the years, municipal leaders have expressed growing interest in supporting after-school programs, as the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education, and Families documented in a 2011 report highlighting our cities and 23 others. Why? Because our charge as mayors and council members is to keep our cities safe, spur economic growth, ensure a high quality of life, and provide opportunity for all of our residents. By engaging young people in positive activities while their parents are at work, after-school and expanded-learning opportunities help city officials confront pressing local challenges, such as crime prevention, truancy, low academic achievement and graduation rates, college and career preparation, civic engagement, hunger, and childhood obesity. Providing resources directly to programs or creating partnerships with other organizations that provide quality after-school experiences for children and youths aligns well with our top priorities.

Many municipalities already provide an array of opportunities to their young people through parks and recreation departments, police athletic leagues, libraries, and museums. Often, however, key local actors work in silos and try to solve challenges on their own rather than take a more integrated and effective approach in cooperation with city agencies, schools, businesses, and faith-based and community-based organizations. As part of a growing trend in the nation's cities, municipal officials are increasingly bringing these institutions around the same table to coordinate after-school programs within one citywide system. By working together, local leaders can improve the quality of programs, target investments toward the young people most in need, offer training to after-school program providers from different organizations, and increase youth participation rates.

As mayors and council members, we have made after-school learning a priority in our cities, and we work closely with our school leaders and youth-serving organizations to create, strengthen, and expand after-school learning opportunities. This work is too great for any one of us, but acting in collaboration, we are making important strides on behalf of young people in our communities.

Despite the extreme pressures on municipal budgets in the last several years, many of us have worked hard to realign existing funding, invest new funding, or at least hold the line to protect after-school budgets. For instance, in Nashville, only one new initiative was funded in an otherwise flat budget environment in 2009: resources for the Nashville After Zone Alliance, or NAZA, to coordinate an after-school network serving middle school youths. Since NAZA's inception, participation in after-school programs has nearly doubled for the targeted, high-need population; the program now serves 562 middle school students.

Resources to support after-school programs can come from many different places. Since 2001, the city government in Fort Worth has dedicated more than $1.4 million annually in concert with grants from the state to support 94 after-school initiatives in four school districts by drawing on part of the revenue from a one-half-cent sales tax dedicated to its "crime control and prevention district."

Local officials in Charlotte have also recognized the benefits of after-school programs in preventing juvenile crime and promoting academic success. More than a decade ago, council members and school board leaders made a joint commitment to invest city and school dollars to launch three new after-school programs for middle school students. In the coming year, the city will fund six different providers with a combination of $590,000 in local funds and federal Community Development Block Grant dollars.

Finally, the St. Paul mayor's office has played a central role in leading the city's Second Shift Commission, a broad stakeholder group representing the city, the school district, and community-based organizations. The commission's recommendations led to the development of Sprockets, a coordinating entity that now supports the citywide out-of-school-time network of providers, education leaders, city leaders, and other key participants. The network collaborates to share data and works to improve the quality, availability, and effectiveness of after-school programs.

One of the first essential steps that educators and others can take to enhance community supports for learning is to reach out to local elected officials and discuss how after-school programs can help fulfill a shared vision for young people. Mayoral and city council champions can raise awareness of the benefits of the programs, draw attention to key challenges, and identify the roles each partner can play in working toward solutions.

Municipal officials can also help map the distribution of after-school opportunities across their cities. Not only can making this information publicly available help parents gain access to programs, but it can also build political will for after-school investments when local leaders have clear, visual evidence of the lack of accessible programs in certain neighborhoods. Data-driven discussions of these gaps often spark collaborative efforts to reduce barriers to youth participation, ensure programs are of high quality, and evaluate the impact of after-school opportunities on student outcomes.

When young people are engaged in positive activities, our cities clearly benefit. Supporting after-school programming is a central part of our policies for economic development, neighborhood development, and crime prevention. Our job as municipal officials is to connect those dots.

Yet we must move forward with an awareness that no entity-be it a city, school district, or nonprofit-can go it alone in its efforts to expand high-quality after-school opportunities. By working across sectors to build coordinated, citywide after-school systems, we can provide every child in our communities with a chance to thrive.

Christopher Coleman, Karl Dean, and Betsy Price are, respectively, the mayors of St. Paul, Minn.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Fort Worth, Texas. James Mitchell Jr. and Ronnie Steine are, respectively, city councilmembers in Charlotte, N.C., and Nashville.