DETROIT — A fleet of vans and a bus picked up dozens of students and dropped them off at the Downtown Boxing Gym here on a chilly Monday afternoon in March. Inside the spacious facility, students learn more than just how to throw a jab or perform pushups and plank exercises. From athletics and academics to enrichment classes in other fields like cooking and graphic design, the programming is primarily driven by student interests, and staffers say that’s the big draw for kids to come — and keep coming back.
Just ask Christian, a sixth grader who attends the local charter school Detroit Prep. He’s been attending this after-school program for the last three years. Early on, Christian says, he was a little reserved and shy, but participating at the gym helped improve his communication skills. Working with one of the program’s tutors also boosted his skills in math, a subject he doesn’t enjoy very much.
Lately, he’s in good spirits, in part because he feels ownership over how he spends his time after school. He’s writing a speech about gang violence for a youth public speaking competition called Project Soapbox and recently got elected to the gym program’s student council.
Being given a space to explore keeps Christian engaged.
“I like the choice to do what I want to do here,” he says.
Christian’s positive enrichment experience is exactly what federal education officials and advocates for after-school programs are hoping to replicate across the country. The Engage Every Student Initiative is a national campaign, started in 2022, that calls for communities to provide high-quality, out-of-school-time learning opportunities for all interested students by using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
After-school advocates and providers agree that the expansion of high-quality programs touts a slew of academic, behavioral and social-emotional benefits for many students whom they say are still grappling with lingering negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The push has also spurred innovation within the field driven by youth needs and interests, as demonstrated by two long-time after-school programs based in the Midwest, the Downtown Boxing Gym in Detroit and After School Matters in Chicago.
While advocates welcome the national initiative’s goals to boost after-school options, they say challenges remain regarding programming accessibility and sustainability due to barriers that include limited funding and staff shortages.
A National Push for More After-School Options
Last July, more than two years into a pandemic that roiled school districts across the country, the U.S. Department of Education launched the Engage Every Student Initiative. Multiple partner organizations, including Afterschool Alliance, the School Superintendents Organization and the National League of Cities, provide connections and assistance to communities wishing to expand access to after-school and summer learning offerings, per the initiative’s website.
One of its aims is to encourage states and school districts to invest some of the billions of dollars set aside in the American Rescue Plan legislation for learning recovery efforts into after-school offerings such as subject-based tutoring. But the initiative also encourages school districts to partner with community and faith-based organizations to design programs that support and develop students in a more holistic sense, says Jodi Grant, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Afterschool Alliance.
“While after-school programs have academic support, there’s also all of these other things that are happening, whether it’s workforce skills, it’s participating in sports and theater. It’s an opportunity to have healthy relationships with peers and caring adults and mentors. And so much of that was lost during the pandemic, as well as the academic piece,” Grant says. “Engage Every Student is really trying to shine a light on where this is happening well, and to encourage more local school districts to use their money to create or expand partnerships, so that we can serve more kids.”
The use of federal COVID-19 relief dollars may help communities create more affordable and high-quality after-school programs, Grant notes. In Afterschool Alliance’s “America After 3PM” report released last year, the organization found that between 2014 and 2020, participation in after-school programming decreased and barriers to participation and unmet demand grew. Parents were more likely in 2020 to cite cost, lack of available programs, and not having a safe way to transport youth to and from programs as reasons why they didn’t enroll their children in after-school programs than they did in 2014. Low-income, Black and Latino households were also more likely to note these barriers, the report found.
The Engage Every Student Initiative actively tracks the ways communities are using federal COVID-19 relief dollars to create after-school and summer programming through its investment map. So far, Grant has seen innovative offerings sprout up across the country, like aviation and welding programs in North Dakota and a mobile after-school program inside a bus equipped with internet access that travels to trailer parks and serves youth and families in rural Colorado.
Grant also sees energy for after-school expansion in states such as California, Minnesota and Alabama. Mostly state education agencies have spearheaded this charge in creating programming in areas that didn’t have access before, Grant says, adding that the local level paints a less encouraging picture.
“The reality is that in most places, the school districts are not partnering right now,” she says. “So we still have our work cut out for us. And we know that demand has not diminished.”
Does After-School Remain an Afterthought?
According to the “America after 3PM” report, parents view after-school programs favorably, because they help youth build life skills, receive assistance with homework assignments and get access to healthy meals and snacks. Eighty-seven percent of parents surveyed also support public funding for these programs.
Yet key challenges persist that inhibit more students from accessing high-quality programs.
For example, in Michigan, roughly 750,000 K-12 youth are waiting for a spot in an after-school program, says Erin Skene-Pratt, the executive director of the Michigan Afterschool Partnership, a statewide coalition that advocates for equitable access to quality out-of-school-time programming, which includes activities offered before school, after school and during the summer.
“We basically have an after-school crisis, right in the state,” she says. “We don’t have enough places for our youth to go.”
Even when a student gains a program spot, often those providers are strained for staff and other resources. In a 2021 report, the coalition found that Michigan’s youth-to-provider ratio was 376-to-1, which the organization says underscores the scarcity of programming despite the demand. In southeastern Michigan, the ratio was much higher, at 531-to-1. The national ratio, Skene-Pratt says, is 211-to-1. None of these figures is ideal, she adds.
On top of that, the availability of pandemic-era dollars to fund after-school programs has not translated into an explosion of new offerings in Michigan, despite the Engage Every Student Initiative’s aims. Skene-Pratt is appreciative of the initiative’s efforts to spotlight the importance of after-school activities yet says more work needs to be done.
“So I still don’t necessarily see after-school as a priority across the board,” she says. “However, there certainly are certain school districts, certain administrators who do prioritize this, but again, they’re always struggling to address the funding piece of it.”
Among the biggest barriers to making after-school programming more robust and widespread are insufficient government funding, staffing shortages, and in some areas, a lack of transportation. While Skene-Pratt points to the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program as a helpful mechanism to create after-school programming in high-poverty areas, she says additional funding must be approved by state lawmakers to help expand programming in Michigan, which could also help boost the workforce needed to operate after-school activities. Providers often have difficulty filling jobs related to these programs, which tend to be low-paid.
And commuting to programs can also be a vexing problem for students. For example, in Detroit, about a third of residents don’t own a car, and the city’s transportation system is widely considered unreliable.
All of these hurdles mean that some youth miss out on enrichment opportunities, which after-school advocates say help to improve academic outcomes and keep students safe and away from criminal activities or other detrimental behaviors. This can also become a child care problem, Skene-Pratt adds, since working families often worry about leaving their children at home alone once the school day ends if they don’t have another safe place to go.
Cultivating Well-Being and Community
Improving access to after-school programs could help to address an acute concern for today’s students: their mental health. The pandemic worsened an existing youth mental health crisis, which in turn altered the ways some after-school programs conduct business.
When the pandemic hit, the staffers at After School Matters in Chicago moved quickly. They shifted all of their programming online, which included visual arts, media and STEM offerings. Instructors sent out activities to youth participants to keep them engaged. The organization also began surveying both youth and instructors about what their needs were. Students reported high levels of anxiety and stress.
The majority of the organization’s programs eventually returned in person. But three years later, many students are still dealing with adverse mental health problems induced by the pandemic.
“They’re definitely still there,” says Melissa Mister, chief of strategy and staff for After School Matters. “We’re of the mind that these were challenges that existed, but light was shone on them differently during the pandemic.”
Now, through a local partnership with Adler University Community Health Services that began in 2020, After School Matters offers free individual counseling for youth participants; access to telehealth services; workshops on mental health awareness, grief, loss, intergenerational trauma and healing; and trainings for instructors to identify youth mental health needs.
“There was a ton of work that went into trying to figure out how to make telehealth services available, how to kind of remove the stigma of getting mental health support,” Mister says, adding that the partnership has grown.
The organization, which serves high school students ages 14 to 18, has also made it a priority to embed social-emotional learning across its programming.
“We want to make sure that [when] young people come to our programs, they feel connected, they feel hopeful. They learn skills, not just in their content areas, but also social-emotional skills,” Mister says. “At the end of every session, there’s a reflection. And so just having some of those pieces built into the framework means that there’s room and there’s time and space to talk and to share concerns, to share celebrations, to connect with people differently than you may in other settings.”
Carvell Anderson, a 19-year-old After School Matters alumnus who also served on the program’s youth leadership council, says the integration of mental health supports created a safe environment for his peers to express their personal obstacles as they grappled with anxiety, depression and stress. Those supports also helped them build community with each other.
“It allowed for the teens, for us, to become closer and know how to check up on one another,” he says.
Youth Voice Transforms Programs
Back in Detroit, students flood the halls of the Downtown Boxing Gym, brimming with pinball-like energy and confidence as they sport black T-shirts designed by one of their peers for 313 Day, an annual celebration named after the city’s famous area code. In one room, elementary students are buzzing during a reading class. Another room houses microphones and recording equipment for podcasting. Tonight’s dinner includes mostaccioli, Hawaiian rolls and fruit cups.
Established in 2007, the Downtown Boxing Gym serves about 200 youth ages 8 to 18 and provides mentorship and support remotely to young adults through age 25. Staffers hope to grow the number to 300 students, including alumni, in the near future. Right now, there are more than 1,000 youth on the waiting list. To accommodate the need, the organization has purchased land nearby with plans to construct a new building. After the space is built, the Downtown Boxing Gym will be able to expand programming and double the number of students served.
The gym’s leaders say that they currently aren’t partnering with a school district or another organization participating in the Engage Every Student Initiative, nor have they received federal financial support through the American Rescue Plan. Yet they’ve been able to provide transportation, programming and meals for free to students thanks to corporate, philanthropic and individual donor support — which is somewhat uncommon within the after-school arena. Many programs still require a fee in order to participate, which raises concerns about the equitable reach of after-school opportunities.
“The problem with most programs being parent-funded is that it means that more and more kids don’t have access,” says Grant of Afterschool Alliance. “We want all kids (whether or not their parents can pay) to have the chance to get these same rich experiences and opportunities, because they help support success in the workforce and in life.”
It’s rare that the Downtown Boxing Gym’s offerings are repeated since they ebb and flow based on youth participants’ interests, says Katie Solomon, the programs director. It’s an example of how children and teens have helped to reconfigure the after-school landscape. Today’s offerings are rife with game design, sound engineering, culinary classes, coding and more.
The best after-school programs, advocates say, involve partnerships with community-based organizations and do not mimic the routine and structure of a traditional classroom. In these less restrictive environments, students are given space to explore academic or career interests without the added pressure of testing or performance evaluation.
“When they walk in, they get to choose what their night looks like. So there’s never this adult telling them you have to sit in this chair, do this homework assignment and do this worksheet, and follow these more educational, like, societal standards,” Solomon says. “Because those standards aren’t serving our students.”
DaSean Moore, an 18-year-old senior at Harper Woods High School, has been participating at the Downtown Boxing Gym for the last six years. He says the instructors have helped him mature and handle difficult social situations. Before, Moore says, he’d become reactive during a conflict, but now he is more calm and measured when heated situations arise. He’s been accepted to multiple colleges and is interested in becoming either a handyman or a photographer, passions he discovered during after-school sessions.
There are a lot of advantages to participating in after-school programs, according to Moore.
“It’s really helpful for young people like me, because some people, they’re going to school, they graduate, and then they realize they never had a goal,” he says. “This place kind of lets you explore your options.”