After-School Education Essay

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After-school education consists of structured time outside of formal schooling at youth-serving agencies that offer academic activities (homework help and tutoring, field trips, community service) as well as nonacademic activities such as cooking, sports, crafts, and unstructured playtime. Frequently aimed at low-income, minority urban youth, after-school programs incorporate both enrichment and protectionist aspects and function either independently of (or supplemental to) school activities. This entry recalls the history of after-school education and current issues related to practice.

Nineteenth-Century Programs

After-school programs began in the United States during the nineteenth century in response to the following social trends: (a) the increasing population of children, (b) the gradual decline in the need for child labor, (c) the growth of schooling resulting from the passage of compulsory education laws, and (d) immigration. There was, in particular, a growing fear of children who lived in tenements and slums who had nothing to do and nowhere to go except the streets. During this period, “the street” became known as a gathering place for working-class and immigrant boys and, eventually, girls.

Most early programs were informal, unstructured, and not particularly educational, although some provided religious and moral instruction along with a good dose of middle-class values such as cleanliness, punctuality, and honesty. During the Progressive Era, children’s out-of-school time made the transition from unstructured time spent on the street to semi-structured opportunities created by social reformers intent on rescuing children from the physical and moral hazards of the streets.

Most after-school programs shared the following aims: to protect children and control their activities, to provide order and a safe space, to socialize children and enrich their lives, to Americanize immigrant children and support their pride in “home” cultures, to reinforce the work of schools, and to nurture

children’s individuality and help them adjust to societal demands. On the one hand, social reformers wanted to protect children and families from the rampant poverty, dangerous working conditions, and poor health that accompanied urbanization and industrialization. On the other, they were influenced by the child study movement, which, during the late nineteenth century, considered childhood to be a distinct stage of life. John Dewey and other Progressive educators argued that, as a result, children needed real-life problems and interaction with the social environment. In addition to focusing on the individual, Progressives expressed a concern for society. After-school programs were supposed to keep society safe from boys and girls who would otherwise engage in crime, sex, school truancy, and other socially unacceptable behaviors.

Boys’ And Girls’ Clubs

By the late 1890s, nascent after-school programs generally expanded to include playrooms and gymnasiums. Around 1900, continued worry about unsupervised and undersocialized working-class boys prompted the addition of “boys’ work” or manual training and shop classes. Between 1900 and 1920, boys’ and girls’ work continued to expand, sponsored by settlement houses, private sources, and churches. In 1905, approximately fifty local after-school programs in Boston formed a national organization that came to be known as the Boys’ Clubs of America, with reformer Jacob Riis as its first president.

By the late 1920s, 120 boys’ clubs in 87 cities were members of the Boys’ Club Federation. Most of the programs operated five or six days a week, from after school until the evening. A nominal membership fee was charged, and Saturday activities (particularly field trips) were common. Activities were arranged in terms of “classes” or focused group activity, or clubs (photography club, history club, science club, dance club, etc.). In order to keep children busy by involving them in constant activity, some classes lasted only twenty minutes. There was some attempt to separate older and younger children because of their different interests. Most boys’ clubs originally had playgrounds as well as a game room and other activity rooms. Then as now, the gym was the center of activity and basketball was a popular sport.

By the early 1920s, girls made up as many as one third of the participants in some programs, although the activities were gender specific. First involved in drama, music, and domestic crafts such as sewing and cooking, girls began to engage in gymnastics and sports. Although girls were allowed to attend, the clubs were not coeducational. Girls’ Club was a separate entity. When membership began dropping at both boys and girls independent organizations, however, girls were finally invited to join boys’ clubs as full-fledged members. The Boys’ Club would not officially acknowledge girls as members until 1990, when the organization’s title was changed to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Incorporated.

Postwar Growth

During the post–World War II period, after-school programs positioned themselves as a “safe haven” during a time when Cold War fears predominated. Responding to the national agenda, such programs focused on science clubs just as the federal government appropriated money to schools to promote science, math, and foreign language in the national interest.

It was also during this time that low-income children began to use the streets as a form of resistance rather than survival. The rise of urban housing projects—which were often high-rise apartments with no green (or play) space whatsoever—concentrated poor children into a different kind of tenement. The term juvenile delinquency began to be used to identify children who were poor, marginalized, and disaffected from school. Rather than situate clubs in areas away from racial minorities, clubs now moved toward them, often locating in storefront facilities in the middle of the inner city.

During the 1960s, the War on Poverty domestic policy declared by U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson stimulated modest growth in after-school programming. An emphasis was placed not only on preventing juvenile delinquency but also on equalizing educational opportunities. The 1966 Coleman Report suggested that the child’s home and community environments and extracurricular experiences were as important as school experiences in determining educational success. Afterschool programs began to focus on literacy and academic achievement. This caused a shift in funding from private sources (including individual donors, corporate donors, community chests, and United Way agencies) to federal sources and grants from philanthropic foundations. Spurred by the civil rights movement, programming addressed ethnic pride and identification and expanded opportunities for girls.

The role and purpose of after-school programs changed once again in the 1970s and 1980s. The programs became more involved in school-age child care because of an increase in single-parent households due to divorce and numbers of women entering the workplace. Children taking care of younger siblings or family members and lack of supervision left young children vulnerable to victimization and neglect.

Contemporary Challenges

The Back to Basics movement of the schools during the 1980s and 1990s tightened up accountability and administrative control and reemphasized basic skills and direct instruction. Once again, after-school programs were asked to address the problem of educational failure by concentrating on basic skills tutoring and homework help. After-school programs have generally resisted these attempts, citing their commitment to the development of “the whole child” while at the same time providing accountability to donors and sponsors. After-school programs once provided a safe haven from the drugs and gangs of the inner cities. More recently, clubs are considered to be a stable place for children living in poverty whose lives are marked by mobility and instability.

During the late 1990s, after-school programs were considered to be a partner in the effort to meet the needs of low-income children. Due to changes in the welfare laws, more children were left alone while the primary caregivers worked two or more low-paying jobs. Although the distinction is still made between being a day care center and an after-school program, more clubs are providing care for students below the age of five. Yet with economic downturns, some agencies have been forced to consolidate their activities because of shrinking donations.

Governmental entities that contribute to the operational funds of after-school programs are searching for ways to combine the services of programs and community centers in order to be cost efficient. The problem then becomes one of maintaining institutional identity. At the same time, higher education classes that require students to engage in service learning often approach after-school programs as a kind of laboratory or field experience. The end result is that after-school programs have become more burdened and bureaucratic and less free and unstructured.

Although the clubs could be a bridge between family and school, schools (both public and private) have been reluctant to mesh their activities with those of after-school programming and to capitalize on their knowledge of the child’s environment. Club staff members are generally not credentialed teachers, are often part-time employees, and have short tenures with long hours and low pay. Schools criticize them for not knowing how to discipline children or for being too empathetic to them. Clubs and schools continue to disagree over the meaning and role of “play,” and clubs continue to consider themselves to be more child-centered than schools.

Bibliography:

  1. Halpern, R. (2003). Making play work: The promise of afterschool programs for low-income children. New York: Teachers College Press.
  2. Noam, G. G., Biancarosa, G., & Dechausay, N. (2003). Afterschool education: Approaches to an emerging field. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

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