Maricopa and Pima counties' after-school programs need to create a buzz about what's available, take better advantage of federally funded meal programs that could provide breakfast, snacks or even dinner to participants, and reach out more to at-risk students.
Those are some of the recommendations made following the findings of the first comprehensive survey of out-of-school programs in those counties.
The Arizona Center for Afterschool Excellence for years has wanted to get a handle on where options are for children, what types of programs are available, and what collaboration is going on between after-school program operators and educators, said Melanie McClintock, executive director of the center. The group - along with the Valley of the Sun United Way - sought out the Morrison Institute to conduct research.
Using an online survey, 681 program managers responded to 55 questions about the types of programs they operate, attendance and more.
"It was great to get concrete information about things we talk about anecdotally," McClintock said.
Most noticeable, McClintock said, was the fact that on a "typical day" only 28 percent of programs operate at capacity in Maricopa County. That includes before- and after-school programs, as well as summer programs.
Though the study did not specifically seek to find out what percentage of students are in after-school programs, an earlier survey - conducted by the national Afterschool Alliance in 2009 - found that 16 percent of Arizona school children take part in them.
The study also found that though nearly half of the reporting programs say a majority of their children are eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, few offer breakfast (36 percent) or dinner (6 percent). Most offer snacks.
One piece of information discovered in the newest research was something the Arizona Center for Afterschool Excellence already suspected: There is a low representation of Hispanic students in the programs compared to their population. While 43 percent of the under 18 population in Maricopa County is Hispanic, they make up only 32 percent of the children in the reporting after-school programs, according to the study.
"It was more alarming to actually see it as a statistic," McClintock said. "What that says to me is some of our most vulnerable, at-risk students are not benefitting from these programs."
Whites make up the largest portion of children in the programs at 48 percent.
McClintock would also like to see program staff talk more to educators. After-school programs in the survey say they do try to work "on some level" with school and district staffs to meet the needs of students, but most - 67 percent - said they need to strengthen that area.
It would benefit the students, McClintock said, because if they are struggling in an area of school they may receive help during the hours they are in these programs.
When asked which top three activities they focus on, most program managers picked "academic enrichment," followed by "arts and culture" and "sports and recreation."
Mesa Unified School District has seen a decline this year in the number of participants in its after- and before-school program, Kids Corner, said community education director Tot Wallace. The prices haven't changed, she said, but the economy has.
"The economy has shifted people's work schedule. One person may be at home. People are living together with other family members so there is child care available (at home). There are so many different scenarios that the economy has impacted," she said.
But the district also added an enrichment program after the survey was conducted. In its second year, more students enrolled than last year in options such as karate, keyboarding, gymnastics or chess. The district also launched a junior high athletics program.
"It does help a parent ... (students) can do it right after school. It's right there and seamless. Teachers can walk students over and there's the familiarity of being on the same campus," Wallace said.
Chandler, Gilbert and Tempe also offer before- and after-school options, as well as enrichment programs on campuses.
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