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COMMENTARY | Afterschool programming helps children excel in school and stay out of trouble. But across the country, demand outpaces supply.
Recently released data on juvenile crime verified something that working parents like us have felt in our bones since the day our children first went off to school: the hours after school can be perilous if children are left unsupervised.
A new report from Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, part of the Council for a Strong America, examined its data alongside FBI crime statistics and found that 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.—the four-hour period after school lets out and before many parents arrive home from work—continues to be the prime time for kids to get in trouble with the law. In the 46 states with available data, more than three-quarters saw a spike in juvenile crime in that four-hour afternoon period.
Police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors across the country who are members of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids regard the hours after school as a period of risk for children. Those same law enforcement leaders also believe that afterschool programs for kids are a genuine solution. As Chief Ken Corney of the Ventura Police Department in California puts it, “I believe quality afterschool programs are the best form of long-term crime prevention a community can provide. Afterschool programs can increase school-day attendance, student test scores and reduce dropouts. All leading to lifelong success and achievement, which is integral to preventing crime and keeping our communities safe.”
In Corney’s view—one affirmed by reams of research—it’s not just that afterschool programs keep kids occupied when they might otherwise become involved in crime, either as victims or perpetrators. It’s also that afterschool programs help build habits that steer kids towards educational achievement. By helping kids succeed in school and beyond, afterschool programs set kids on a productive, law-abiding path that can benefit them throughout their lives.
Recognizing that benefit, many police departments partner with afterschool programs. In Burlington, Iowa, the Partners in Education, Community Educating Students (PIECES) afterschool program is not just a safe place for K-8 students; it also provides enriching learning activities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), art, environmental studies and more. PIECES has built strong community partnerships, including with the Burlington Police Department (BPD), which provides mentoring for students from detectives in a Crime Scene Investigation club.
The Greater Wyoming Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) provides comprehensive afterschool and summer learning programs, including programming focused on youth who have become involved with the juvenile justice system. Federal funding from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) helped BBBS open its first center aimed at preventing substance and alcohol misuse. Once a week, program staff meet with their counterparts from schools, community-based organizations, law enforcement and the mental health community to discuss youth who have been involved with law enforcement, and develop recommendations and action plans to support them. As the BBBS program expanded its work on behalf of justice-involved youth, juvenile citations in Albany County decreased by a whopping 46 percent.
Keeping kids safe by preventing juvenile crime is one of the many reasons afterschool programs play such a vital role in their communities. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough programs to meet the demand. According to research by the Afterschool Alliance, for every child in a program, two more would be enrolled if their parents could find a program for them.
Unsurprisingly, the afterschool shortage is really about the lack of funding. There’s just not enough to support the programs we need. Parents pay the lion’s share for their kids’ afterschool programs, but local, state and federal dollars make a critical difference.
Bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress for afterschool programs has kept the 21st CCLC funded at modest levels through presidential administrations from both political parties. The challenge now is for Congress to work with the White House to break out of the cycle to boost federal afterschool funding.
That’s what children, parents, police chiefs, educators—really, all of us—want and deserve, and what the research demonstrates is an effective way to help our kids and make our communities safer.
Jodi Grant is executive director of the Afterschool Alliance. Barry Ford is president and CEO of the Council for a Strong America.
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