The Promise and Challenge of After-School Programming

If you haven’t heard about Character and Skills Education (CASE), you should check out the introductory piece we wrote about the program at the beginning of the school year. In short, it’s an after-school program we run, and we just finished our first full year of CASE last month. In total, we ran two after-school sites and provided hundreds of hours of quality after-school programming. I ran the site at the middle school building, what we called the Du-Pont-Hadley site. (The other site took place on the G.O.D. Int’l property.) It was a great year, and now that it’s over, I’ve had some time to reflect upon some of the lessons I’ve learned about the value and challenges of after-school programming.

I didn’t have after-school programs on my mind before CASE. My school didn’t have after-school programming as such, but I also went to a private school, and I grew up in the kind of affluence that gave me access to different enriching programs—I went to art classes, did drama, and was involved 4-H. I guess I didn’t qualify these programs as “after-school programs” because, in my adolescent mind, after-school programs were only for kids who needed to be kept off drugs or other delinquent activities.

Kids participating in our CASE program get exposure to a variety of enrichment activities like gardening and woodworking.

I would imagine this is the idea many people still have about such programs—after-school programs are just ways to keep youth distracted for a few hours to prevent delinquency. There is some truth to this. Studies confirm that the hours directly after school are especially dangerous for a young person, so the after-school program performs a helpful protective function. But it doesn’t stop there, and this has been the wondrous surprise of actually running an after-school program: After-school programming can play a unique and important part in the development of youth.

Reflecting the on the purpose of running an after-school program, one of the things I began to see is that youth need opportunities to see that learning can happen outside the format of the classroom. That might sound a bit ridiculous--who wouldn’t know that?--but youth tend to develop the idea that “learning” only occurs within the confines of a school building and is somehow disconnected from their day to day.

Of course, no one explicitly teaches kids to think this way, but it’s a way of thinking they tend to pick up. It works like this: Whenever you teach something, you not only teach what you intend to teach, you also end up teaching a variety of other things that kids pick up on, often subconsciously, and that you might have had no intention of actually communicating. Let’s say I’m teaching about the influence of French on the development of Middle English during the reign of William the Conqueror, and I’m giving tons and tons of reliable historical data on the matter, but I’m also monotone and obnoxiously boring. What will kids learn about the subject? Some of them might pick up on a few facts, but what they’ll really learn is that the history of English is boring and not worth the effort. (Which, of course, we all know is not true.) They might draw even wilder conclusions. Depending on their past experience with history, they might conclude that all history is boring, irrelevant, and what not. And it’s these side-lessons—the unintended seepage of teaching, if you will—that tend to get really ingrained deep in the young student’s brain.

Classroom learning is great, but learning in school comes with its fair share of unavoidable side-lessons, lessons about what learning is and how it operates. One of the things kids begin to do, fairly early it would seem, is conflate school with learning, as if “learning” only happens in a classroom. Of course, if your experience in school is terrible, you end up with a distaste of learning entirely and anything that smells like it, but with most kids the effect isn’t so extreme—it just limits their conception of education and lulls them into thinking that their brain is off-duty when school is out. Again, no one is maliciously implanting these thoughts into kids, but they get there anyway, and the answer is not to do away with classroom learning but to find ways to counteract some of the unavoidable side-effects that spending thousands of hours in the classroom can cause.

Kids don't want it to be "school, part 2," so we make sure it's not, while still incorporating what they need to be learning into our time together.

This is where CASE comes in. When I first started to teach at CASE, one thing became obvious right away: The students didn’t want an extension of school. They would come in, and you could see the full-day of school hanging on their bodies like wet clothes. And they were vocal about it, stating in no uncertain terms that they didn’t want school, part 2; Of course, in their mind, this meant that they didn’t want anything educational at all. They wanted games and projects. It was a reasonable request, I understood their complaint, but I saw the opportunity that existed in running projects and games that required the students to actually apply their mind and learn skills, in a way that was actually fun and enjoyable.

Of course, I wanted the youth to actually learn usable skills and knowledge, but I also wanted them to learn the important side-lesson: Learning isn’t just in a classroom. It’s an integral part of living, every day, and the process of learning takes a thousand interesting forms. You can learn about each other from a game or learn skills from taking on a challenge. This is the promise of an after-school program: It’s not just an extension of school; It actually helps cover some of the blind spots that school can produce.

The great value I see in after-school programming doesn’t diminish the immense challenge of actually making it happen. It takes a lot of creativity to develop a program that teaches things through games and projects and activities, in a way where youth can reflect on what they learned and at the same time be pleasantly surprised by how they learned it. The Nashville After School Alliance (NAZA) provides a lot of training and helpful resources, and great people, for running a program in this way, which has been immensely helpful, but the challenge still exists in the day-to-day work of running a program.

All three of these girls continued in our CASE program for a second semester. They not only had a great time, but also formed friendships that motivated them to do their best in school, together. 

CASE is not a finished story. It’s one that is developing. We have learned a lot from our first year. And it was a great first year. When the program ended, the students expressed their desire for it to continue  another year. New friends were made, and I really believe that everyone benefited from the program. In reflecting on the promises and challenges of running an after-school program, I am thankful for the lessons I have learned, especially as I consider how these lessons apply to the countries we will serve in, places where the need to counteract some of the less-desirable side-effects of formal education is more pronounced, where the need for dynamic education is great. This year has been challenging, but I know it has been producing in me and others the kind of drive to continue developing our educational ideas and techniques, even our character, in a way that will produce results in the lives of youth; because of all that, I rejoice.