The learning doesn’t stop when the school bell rings
By Rob Levey
While no formal definition exists as to what constitutes after-school enrichment programs, experts cite two key interrelated concepts when describing them.
Quality According to Amy Upton, director at East Side Learning Center in Concord, the only nationally accredited after-school program in the state, enrichment programs are more than an extension of the school day.
“For me, quality means to what degree are we following the curriculum frameworks of the school,” said Upton.
Janice Hastings, vice president of Program & Resource Development at PlusTime NH, a statewide nonprofit organization that assists after-school programs in strengthening their infrastructure and capacity, agrees with Upton.
“Quality for an enrichment program is about making those links between the activities that take place after school with what happens during the school day, but going beyond the academics,” said Hastings, who noted some enrichment programs enable kids to apply their after-school experiences toward academic school credits.
Referring to the after-school environment as “the new neighborhood” for kids today, Upton said quality enrichment programs must meet the needs of every child, which includes helping them develop social and emotional skills.
“These skills aren’t taught at school and they can’t be learned if they are left alone at home in the afternoons,” said Upton.
Hastings noted that quality enrichment programs also help develop a child’s critical thinking skills.
Tracey Tucker, executive director of the year-round out-of-school program New Heights in Portsmouth, agrees with Hastings and said such skills are transferable to a wide array of settings and experiences.
“Whether kids learn how to interact, cooperate with their peers, or figure out how to navigate a complicated social situation, these skills will serve them very well in their adult years,” said Tucker.
Intentionality Citing that extracurricular activities simply expose kids to new experiences, Tucker said enrichment programs are “designed with much deeper intentions in mind.”
“Enrichment activities actually make kids more proficient in their social, emotional and communication skills,” Tucker said. “They encompass the whole person, which is something extracurricular activities are simply not designed to do.”
At East Side Learning Center in Concord, Upton said goals and objectives are defined before an activity or club is even administered.
“We look at the cognitive, social, emotional, and language components and ask ourselves what area of development we are addressing,” said Upton, who noted the kids themselves assist in the process of determining what programs exist.
“They have to state goals and objectives, too, for each club and fill out evaluations at the end,” she added.
According to Hastings, providing kids with such opportunities to express themselves to staff is critical.
“The kids need to feel they are listened to and that there are adults they can talk with,” Hastings said.
In approaching kids as whole beings — emotionally, academically, socially, and physically —Tucker said enrichment programs have been shown to affect lifelong positive outcomes.
“From the kids’ perspective, it might be fun, but a true enrichment program takes a lot of effort, planning, and communication behind the scenes,” Tucker said. “You have to involve parents, school systems, primary-care physicians if necessary—it’s a team-based approach.”
Tucker noted enrichment programs also generally track a child’s progress.
“We measure each participant’s resiliency, so based on that data we get we know where a child might need additional guidance,” said Tucker. “It’s important we track their progress because it validates our success.”
Choosing the right program From the outside looking in, it may be hard to decide which program is right for your child, which is why Hastings suggests parents visit programs with their kids.
“See what your kids think, find out if the center provides access to healthy snacks, talk with other families and see what they do,” said Hastings. “It’s important parents do their homework, too.”
Echoing the sentiments of Hastings, Tucker said it is beneficial to review a staff’s qualifications, too.
“There is something to be said for experience, but if you have a staff where nearly everyone has a BA or BS, that’ll tell you something right there,” said Tucker, who noted several of her staff have master’s degrees.
According to Tucker, it is equally crucial a program provide many different programming options to address diverse needs.
“It’s important our programs are relevant and what kids want to do,” said Tucker, who said New Heights will unveil several six- to eight-week workshops in the fall to attract more youth. “Our job is to provide kids with opportunities to experience things they can’t get anywhere else.”
Upton agrees and said at East Side Learning Center they offer everything from sports clubs and drama to baking, cooking, and jewelry clubs. She said one of their most popular programs is their fort-building club.
“The kids love the variety,” said Upton.
Regardless of the program’s variety, however, Hastings said it is important parents involve their kids in choosing the program.
“You want them to feel engaged in the process,” Hastings said. “If they don’t like a place from the outset, you’ll have less of a chance for them to have an enriching experience.”
Tucker agrees and said choosing the right program comes down to an agreement between a parent and a child.
“Ultimately, kids should have a big say in the process, because it’s where they’ll be spending a lot of time throughout the entire year,” said Tucker. “The key is to balance the interests of the parents with that of the child. There must be agreement.”
Rob Levey is a development and communications associate at Seacoast Mental Health Center and a freelance writer.