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Afterschool Works: The Plenary Session

By Chris D'Agostino


Each year the Afterschool for All Challenge brings together advocates form across the country to address afterschool’s most pressing issues, working with Congress to accrue more support for afterschool and advancing the field through thoughtful discussion. This year, the Challenge focused on a subject near and dear to my heart: research. Breakout sessions throughout the day resonated with the sentiment that research is what influences decision making and propels programs, but the importance of data and evaluation was most heavily touted in this year’s plenary entitled “Afterschool Works: Understanding the Evidence & Transforming Research into Action.” The session featured moderator and afterschool champion Dr. Terry Peterson, who kicked off the plenary by introducing the trailer from this year’s acclaimed documentary Brooklyn Castle, followed by some brief remarks about the importance of afterschool by the film’s producer Katie Dellamaggiore.

Following the trailer, which depicted an inspiring story about a successful afterschool chess program in a Brooklyn middle school, Dr. Peterson introduced some of the most compelling research in the afterschool field:

  • A meta-analysis of 68 afterschool program studies conducted by Joseph Durlak and Roger Weissberg found that high quality afterschool programs are improving student’s attendance and behavior and raising academic achievement.
  • An evaluation of Chicago’s successful Project Exploration STEM education program (whose founders, Gabe Lyon and Paul Serrano, were honored at the Challenge’s "Breakfast of Champions") found that 95 percent of students in the program graduate high school.
  • Los Angeles’ EduCare afterschool programs showed a 90% graduation rate, compared to just a 60% rate for other students.
  • Deborah Vandell at UC Irvine found that students in afterschool programs showed gains in work habits and math scores and a reduction in misconduct in class.

Utilizing this research as a basis, Dr. Peterson then moderated a panel of experts who have had first-hand experience with program evaluation and data collection: Carol McElvain, researcher at the American Institutes of Research; Joe Davis from the Florida Afterschool Network and a former Bureau Chief of the Florida Department of Education; and Richard Tagle, former CEO of Higher Achievement. During the panel discussion, these experts analyzed issues such as the benefits of afterschool programs for students, the components of quality programming, the importance of continuous improvement and the steps necessary to take afterschool to the next level. Carol McElvain tackled these subjects from a national perspective, offering outcomes from her 21st CCLC data evaluations and speaking to the importance of indicators to ensure quality programming. Joe Davis offered a state perspective on research, talking to the significance of educating decision makers on the successes of afterschool and the importance of intentional programming that complements but doesn’t replicate the school day. Finally, Richard Tagle approached research from the program level, displaying the successful rigorous evaluations of Higher Achievement and stressing the importance of meeting community needs.

In conclusion, Eric Gurna, executive director of Development Without Limits and host and producer of the podcast Please Speak Freely, spoke quite freely about the state of the U.S. education climate in response to the panel’s remarks. Eric’s commentary focused on the dangers of high-stakes standardized testing and the value of afterschool programs that provide multiple benefits to children. Eric was simultaneously taping the session (along with many other parts of the Challenge) for a new podcast episode.

In conclusion, each panelist offered some parting words, leaving the audience inspired and ready to transform the impactful research they had been introduced to during the plenary session into action on Capitol Hill the following day.