Watauga County, North Carolina has long offered childcare programs for local families, but it took a 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) grant to foster a true understanding of what those programs can really provide. Before the grant, staff received minimal training, and the social and developmental needs of youth took a back seat to simply keeping kids safe in the out-of-school-time hours. As with many rural communities, Watauga County resources were stretched thin, leaving little extra to invest in youth outside of school hours.
After receiving its first 21st CCLC grant, the county not only expanded access to afterschool programs, but began to challenge the community’s understanding of the needs of youth. In short order, it became clear that kids who participated in the program were doing better academically and were more involved in positive activities, such as community service projects. By the time the county’s second 21st CCLC grant was awarded, the community had developed a richer understanding of the work going on in afterschool programs.
This success led to a new focus on sustainability, as the programs began an ongoing effort to build community support and find alternative sources of funding. That effort has resulted in diversifying the programs' funding base, bringing in mini-grants from local foundations, TANF dollars, and donations from within the community, often spurred by fundraising events.
Over the years, the 21st CCLC grant has changed the nature of child care and transformed the quality and availability of afterschool programs in the community, allowing community-based organizations focused on youth development to access the schools and generate excitement about their work. Afterschool programs now include enrichment activities, professional development and high quality staff. Learning happens through project-based activities, expeditions and community service. The programs are valued by community leaders, including elected officials, the media, and the business community. Afterschool now draws support from a range of organizations at the heart of this rural community – law enforcement, faith-based organizations, 4H, civic groups, the local university and medical care providers.
“The development of 21st CCLC programs in Watauga County, beginning in 1998 with our Watauga LEADERS program, changed our county’s view of the importance of high-quality afterschool programs, especially for middle graders,” says Bricca Sweet, Executive Director of Educational Leadership Beyond Excellence. “It literally transformed perceptions about the ways community partners and the schools can closely collaborate to better serve all our youth. If we had not had 21st CCLC funding to spur collaborative momentum, we would not have the robust afterschool programs for middle graders now provided by our youth development partner, Western Youth Network, nor would we have the standards for pay, quality, and experiential enrichment that now exist in our county-wide K-5 afterschool programs.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: Watauga County was one of the first communities to be awarded a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant to support its afterschool programs. The federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative has just marked 10 years of supporting community afterschool programs. Today, it remains the only federal funding source dedicated to afterschool programs.