After-School Hours: A Time for Children and Science Centers
A Window of Opportunity
By DeAnna Banks Beane
In a single generation, we have seen a dramatic change in the daily routines of family life. In America alone, more than 28 million children between the ages of 6 and 14 live in families where both parents or the sole caregiver work outside the home. More than 75 percent of mothers with school-age children hold paying jobs. Yet many parents cannot afford after-school programs for their kids. Between 5 million and 7 million "latchkey children" come home each afternoon to an unsupervised house or apartment, where the only structure they may have is watching television, playing video games, or hanging out with friends. These children are vulnerable.
All children, regardless of family structure or income level, must accomplish certain developmental tasks to mature into healthy, productive adults. Psychologists have determined that children must begin the work of learning to cooperate with adults and peers and developing a sense of competence in cognitive and affective areas as early as age 6. Those who fail to develop feelings of proficiency during their elementary and middle school years are more likely to experience academic, social, or emotional problems later on. Their problems become society's problems.
Today, private- and public-sector attention is increasingly focused on providing safe, supportive places for children to spend their after-school time. This is particularly important in low-income communities, where children are less likely to have access to effective schools or organized after-school activities.
Influential philanthropic organizations have been addressing this issue, raising the level of dialogue with their research, policy briefings, publications, and funding initiatives. In addition, the U.S. Congress has recently linked funding and collaboration in two new initiativesboth administered by the U.S. Department of Educationthat leverage support for children's development beyond the classroom. The 21st Century Community Learning Centers program (Twenty-First CCLC) requires school districts to partner with community agencies and organizations. Gaining Early Awareness & Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) funds partnerships of high-poverty middle schools with colleges and universities, community organizations, and businesses.
Public awareness of the issue is also growing. In a series of polls commissioned over the past two years by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and JCPenney, more than 90 percent of participating registered voters said they felt that children and teens should have some kind of organized activity or place to go after school. Eighty-two percent said after-school programs are a necessity for their communities. These voters believe that after-school programs keep children safe, help working families, and teach academic skills. And they are willing to see their tax dollars used to support them.
The science center connection
Science centers have been quick to ally themselves with the out-of-school-time movement. Three of the programs described in this issuethose at Racine's Imaginarium, San Jose's Children's Discovery Museum, and Boston's Computer Clubhousewere participants in ASTC's YouthALIVE! initiative (Youth Achievement through Learning, Involvement, Volunteering and Employment), funded from 1990 through 1999 by the Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds.
YouthALIVE! introduced more than 100 science centers and children's museums to the skills and knowledge needed to support the developmental needs of young people aged 10 to 17. The 72 institutions that moved from initial exploration to full YouthALIVE! program implementation evolved into a true community of learners. Today they can point today to outstanding programs that integrate young people of color and youth from low-income communities into the life of their institutions.
YouthALIVE! programs for younger adolescents (10- to 13-year-olds) generally provide structured after-school, weekend, and summer enrichment activities that help participants become competent in both science and the arts, and foster self-awareness and social interaction. With guidance from caring adults and older teens, these children develop projects, complete homework, use computers, make presentations, and, in the process, become competent museum users.
Programs for 14- to 17-year-olds usually center around work-based components. Supported by ongoing museum training and reflection sessions, teens from underserved communities annually blossom into confident, competent exhibit explainers, demonstrators, and outreach workers. For many, the youth program represents their first paying job. And for their science centers, the availability of the teen workers makes it possible to serve children whose families cannot afford fee-based classes.
Cross-age teaching programs have many benefits. One is that the youngsters in science center after-school programs (both in-house and community-based) develop strong relationships with their "cool" teen role models. Another is that helping others to learn seems to motivate teens to master concepts they may have bypassed in school. And when they aren't on duty, the youth can often be found in some quiet corner of the museum, doing their homework, using a computer, or just talking with friends and mentors.
Although the Wallace-Reader's Digest funding has come to an end, most of the YouthALIVE! programs are still going strong. Besides the science centers and museums mentioned in this issue, at least 25 other YouthALIVE! programs have successful after-school components. Each has found new ways to fund what is now an essential part of the institution.
For science centers interested in joining the growing after-school movement, collegial support is available. Five Regional YouthALIVE! Networks, established in 1999, provide professional development and support to youth program staff across the United States. Their workshops are open to any museum committed to inclusive programming, with special attention to underserved youth.
Recently, science centers have begun participating in the U.S. Department of Education's after-school programs. The Imaginarium and the Discovery Science Center are partners in the Twenty-First CCLC initiative. The St. Louis Science Center (SLSC) has joined forces with the University of Missouri at St Louis in a GEAR UP program aimed at fostering a culture of achievement and high expectations in five St. Louis middle schools. As its contribution, SLSC is creating an after-school science club curriculum for the schools and professional-development workshops for the teachers, using some of the Saturday Learning Labs tools developed in its youth program.
In both Twenty-First CCLC and GEAR UP, the lead agency be a school, school district, or institution of higher education. This means that science centers and museums interested in participating must do some research on lead agency's needs and goals. Professionals familiar with the workings of school districts advise science centers to design programs and activities that can help schools meet a superintendent's priorities.
A good after-school program is more than just a place dedicated to enrichment and learning. It is a place for finding friends and acceptance, a place where competence and confidence are built, a place where children's dreams are developed and nurtured. Science centers that support such youthful transformations not only benefit from the positive energy of young people, but also achieve an enhanced role in their communities, and nurture a citizenry that values the presence of informal learning institutions.
DeAnna Banks Beane is project director
for ASTC's YouthALIVE! Initiative. The statistics and research
cited here are taken from When School Is Out, a special
Fall 1999 issue (Volume 9, Number 2) of The Future of Children,
the journal of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The journal
is available online at: www.futureofchildren.org