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The gains in student achievement and school attendance suggest that afterschool programs have a beneficial effect on regularly participating students.

Closing the achievement gap

The promise of afterschool programs

Feb. 16, 2007

As Minnesota's student population diversifies, educators are faced with the daunting task of finding cost-effective ways to narrow the gap between highly prepared students and the underprepared.

Through no fault of their own, underprepared students often experience an array of learning obstacles. For instance, one student may face challenges as a recent ?migr? from a Thai refugee camp, another may miss inordinate amounts of school due to asthma or some other chronic condition, and a third child may receive only minimal parental support.

Obstacles like these force children to run not only at the same pace as their more advanced peers, but actually require that they run faster to arrive at the finish line at the same time--whether that finish line is some form of testing or graduation.

As a large, urban district, St. Paul Public Schools experiences the achievement gap acutely. Its student population is highly mobile, ethnically diverse and reflects a high level of poverty within the community. Schools in St. Paul must also address the needs of English language learners as these students work to develop language proficiency.

A group of researchers from the U's Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the College of Education and Human Development--Timothy Sheldon, Ashley Lewis, and Michael Michlin--examined how an afterschool program in the St. Paul district impacted academic achievement. The program was built from grants from federal funds available through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers.

"We wanted to understand the relationship between regular participation in these afterschool programs and students' academic performance and student behavior. In particular, we were interested in measurable outcomes, such as tests scores, grades, attendance, and discipline rates," Sheldon says.

"In this era of accountability, schools are seeking research-based evidence for the educational programs that they want to implement or continue."

To do that, they created two groups with nearly identical characteristics. One group, the control group, never participated in the afterschool program during the three years of the grant. The other group was composed of students who were regular participants for at least the last two years of programming.

The research showed the effectiveness of increased afterschool programming. The results included:

Standardized tests. Participants demonstrated continuous improvement across the years, particularly in math, while the control group showed uneven or falling scores. On average, participants began with lower average tests scores prior to programming, but achieved higher averages in reading and math during years two and three.

School attendance. Participants experienced dramatically better school attendance, with participants attending 18 more school days and missing 10 fewer school days than their non-participant counterparts. Middle school participants missed 17 fewer days of school than non-participants.

Grades. Participants generally received better marks in English and math.

Behavior. Teachers reported that four out of five students showed improved habits and skills consistently associated with better academic performance, classroom behavior, and improved academic work; discipline records, however, show no significant differences.

Sheldon believes more longitudinal research is needed to determine whether these findings will persist over time, but he believes the research makes clear that regular participation in the afterschool program has had desirable effects on students.

"The successes found with middle and junior high students are especially encouraging, since this period is critical to students' academic future," Sheldon says.

Overall, the gains in student achievement and school attendance suggests that afterschool programming has a beneficial effect on students who regularly participate, especially when that participation continues over several years.

"This study is particularly important in light of the No Child Left Behind legislation," Sheldon adds. "In this era of accountability, schools are seeking research-based evidence for the educational programs that they want to implement or continue."

The benefits to school districts, students, and families include making headway in narrowing the achievement gap, increasing school attachment for at-risk youth, and efficient use of resources (teachers, buildings, and community organizations).

"Since these valuable resources are already present in the community, afterschool programs like this one in St. Paul are also extremely cost-effective," Sheldon concludes. "For these reasons, it seems clear that afterschool programming, particularly for struggling schools, is one additional pathway toward achieving academic equity in American public schools."