During the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges to our nation’s children and youth. Experts have declared a national mental health crisis for young people and 59 percent of parents indicate that they are more worried about their child’s emotional well-being today than they were before the pandemic.
At a time when supporting young people’s healthy development is more important than ever, new data from the Afterschool Alliance confirms the important role afterschool programs play in promoting their futures. These programs operate before school, during summer months, and in peak after-school hours when students can most benefit from a safe learning environment, enrichment activities, and caring adults and mentors. High quality afterschool programs have shown to increase student academic performance, behavioral improvements, and have been a factor in supporting regular school attendance. They also provide excellent opportunities for youth to explore new topics without the typical time constraints that occur during the school day.
According to the Alliance’s report, “Promoting Healthy Futures: Afterschool Provides the Supports Parents Want for Children’s Well-Being,” parents increasingly view afterschool as important to the healthy development of children. Parents feel strongly that these programs allow young people to engage with their peers (85%), build positive relationships with caring mentors and adults (77%), build confidence (81%), and learn life skills (82%) and responsible decision-making (79%). Communities hardest hit by the pandemic, including parents of color and families with low incomes, especially value afterschool’s role in supporting healthy development. Opportunities to build life skills and programming to reduce risky behaviors trend at or above the national average for parents of color and families with low incomes.
Not surprisingly, the demand for afterschool programs has soared. For more than two decades, AmeriCorps programs and AmeriCorps members have been key on-the-ground partners, adding capacity and supplemental educational opportunities to afterschool programs in communities large and small across the country. During the pandemic, AmeriCorps members have helped afterschool programs rise to challenges they never could have anticipated – providing meals, offering care for children of essential workers, finding ways to keep students engaged and connected while learning remotely, providing in person programs and safe spaces for online learning, and remaining a source of support to students and families.
In the Utah Afterschool Network, for example, over 100 AmeriCorps members partner annually with afterschool programs to support their programming, including tutoring and after school activities. At least once a week, they assist students with hands-on STEM activities that are tailored to the students’ needs and interests and go beyond what they traditionally get in a classroom setting. During COVID, when Utah schools were shuttered, AmeriCorps had the flexibility to allow the members to help with additional, much needed services. They provided over 300,000 meals to people who could not get them on their own and created more than 1,000 STEM kits for students. As Cassandra Wambah, an AmeriCorps Director in Salt Lake City, put it: “The value and impact [of AmeriCorps] is huge for the program and for the students, and also for the AmeriCorps members.”
Another example is Breakthrough Miami, an academic and social enrichment program for under-resourced 5th to 12th grade students. This summer, 100 AmeriCorps members served in their summer program as teaching fellows writing teaching plans, working in classrooms, and mentoring students. Monday through Friday, from 9:00AM to 4:30PM, the AmeriCorps members provided academic and social and emotional support to the young people – often developing relationships that will last well beyond those important summer months.
The Game Loft in Maine is a small organization that packs a big punch. Three AmeriCorps members work with the I Know ME Program to raise the aspirations of rural Maine youth and help them succeed as adults after graduation. The AmeriCorps members work with cohorts of teens from grades 7 through 12, helping them to understand themselves and where they came from. They teach the kids by taking them around Maine, introducing them to community leaders, taking them to the state legislature and to all 48 state parks, all the while helping them understand who they are and what they can do for their state.
The American Rescue Plan Act provided supplemental funds that can be used through fiscal year 2024 to expand AmeriCorps and support students during the hours that they are out of school. This provides an extraordinary chance to help young people recover, heal, and accelerate learning – and to continue to have AmeriCorps members serve as part of the solution.
The Mott Foundation has been supporting afterschool programs for over 85 years. As its President and CEO Ridgway White said, “A hard-earned lesson from the pandemic is that we are at our best when schools, communities, businesses, families, students, and the private and public sectors — all of us — come together to ensure kids have what they need.”
We could not agree more and are grateful to the AmeriCorps members and nonprofit organizations that are integral to these programs that help ensure student success and well-being.