Strategy overview

  • Using out-of-school time to provide opportunities for learning and growth: Afterschool programs provide K-12 students with access to academic and/or enrichment activities outside of standard school hours. Many high-quality programs aim to facilitate structured opportunities for supplemental academic support, social-emotional learning, mentorship, and safe spaces for students during afterschool hours. Experts note that particularly for the families of younger students, afterschool programs play a critical role in supporting working parents. Some initiatives target students who need specific academic support, while many offer enrichment opportunities to all students. Many evidence-based afterschool programs are delivered at no or low cost to families.

  • Helping students recover and accelerate learning: Many afterschool programs include a significant academic component. Some approaches focus on incorporating learning recovery and acceleration interventions like high-dosage tutoring or structured homework help into the program. Others may provide academic enrichment not typically available in school, especially specialized STEM subjects like computer programming or environmental science. These types of courses are often delivered by a nonprofit partner.

  • Providing enrichment opportunities: Afterschool also provides an opportunity for recreational enrichment, especially in areas like art, music, and sports. While some activities are best delivered through schools (i.e. popular sports like basketball), many specialized opportunities (i.e. cooking classes) are offered through partner organizations and may require off-campus facilities.

  • Building life and social skills: Some afterschool programs offer skill-building coursework or supplemental sessions embedded within a more general program. In a school setting, this often includes individual or small-group social-emotional activities. Other programs, which may be led by partner staff, focus on life and/or workforce skills, like leadership and communications.

  • Administered independently or by intermediaries: Individual afterschool programs may be designed and implemented by individual community-based organizations or schools. In some locations, non-profit intermediaries centralize administration for a network of programs. These intermediaries often define standards, facilitate partnerships with nonprofit partners and schools, and provide a centralized entry point for families to access multiple opportunities.

Multiple systematic reviews of afterschool programs demonstrate statistically significant, positive impacts on a range of academic and behavioral outcomes.

  • A 2021 research synthesis found that afterschool programs are associated with improved academic (math and reading skills), behavioral (attendance and suspensions), and social-emotional outcomes (self-confidence).

  • A 2010 meta-analysis found that high-quality afterschool programs are associated with improved academic achievement (test scores and grades), behavioral indicators (positive social behaviors and reduced problem behaviors), and overall feelings and attitudes (self-perception and school bonding).

Before making investments in afterschool programs, city and county leaders should ensure this strategy addresses local needs.

The Urban Institute and Mathematica have developed indicator frameworks to help local leaders assess conditions related to upward mobility, identify barriers, and guide investments to address these challenges. These indicator frameworks can serve as a starting point for self-assessment, not as a comprehensive evaluation, and should be complemented by other forms of local knowledge.

The Urban Institute's Upward Mobility Framework identifies a set of key local conditions that shape communities’ ability to advance upward mobility and racial equity. Local leaders can use the Upward Mobility Framework to better understand the factors that improve upward mobility and prioritize areas of focus. Data reports for cities and counties can be created here.

Several indicators in the Upward Mobility Framework may be improved with investments in high-quality afterschool programs. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in this strategy could help, examine the following:

  • Social capital: Number of membership associations per 10,000 people and the ratio of residents’ Facebook friends with higher socioeconomic status to their Facebook friends with lower socioeconomic status. These data are available from the Census Bureau’s County Business Patterns and Opportunity Insights’ Social Capital Atlas, respectively.

Mathematica's Education-to-Workforce (E-W) Indicator Framework helps local leaders identify the data that matter most in helping students and young adults succeed. Local leaders can use the E-W framework to better understand education and workforce conditions in their communities and to identify strategies that can improve outcomes in these areas.

Several indicators in the E-W Framework may be improved with investments in high-quality afterschool programs. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in this strategy could help, examine the following:

  • Communication skills and Higher-order thinking skills: Percentage of students demonstrating proficiency on assessments such as the College and Career Readiness Assessment (CCRA+), an assessment for grades 6–12 that measures critical thinking, problem solving, and written communications.

  • 6th grade on track: Percentage of students in grade 6 with passing grades in English language arts and math, attendance of 90 percent or higher, and no in- or out-of-school suspensions or expulsions.

  • 8th grade on track: Percentage of students in grade 8 with a GPA of 2.5 or higher, no Ds or Fs in English language arts or math, attendance of 96 percent or higher, and no in- or out-of-school suspensions or expulsions.

  • 9th grade on track: Percentage of students in grade 9 with a GPA of 3.0 or higher, no Ds or Fs in English language arts or math, attendance of 96 percent or higher, and no in- or out-of-school suspensions or expulsions.

  • Grade point average: Percentage of students with a GPA of 3.0 or higher.

  • Intentional curricula with defined objectives: Evidence suggests that afterschool programs are most effective in achieving social-emotional development when program activities are “sequenced, active, focused, and explicit (SAFE)”. Sequenced activities develop skills through a series of small tasks that build upon each other; active programming centers hands-on or experiential learning; focused time is spent on skill development; and programs have named explicit goals for student learning. Implementation experts advise that administrators or intermediaries may define learning objectives, while leaving development of curriculum content to implementation partners that have content expertise.

  • Trained staff who reflect the community: Experts note the importance of hiring trained program staff who have expertise in topics relevant to their given program, like STEM or the arts. Furthermore, they observe the importance of hiring staff who come from similar backgrounds as the participating students. Staff who understand the communities in which youth live are well-positioned to foster positive supportive relationships with youth, making afterschool programs engaging and incentivizing youth to want to participate.

  • Small youth-to-adult ratios of youth to adults: Experts emphasize the importance of small adults to student ratios, ideally no larger than 1:13, in fostering supportive relationships between youth and adults. This may vary depending on program structure; for example, a youth theater production by nature may be compatible with larger groups, but ideally would have multiple adults involved to ensure adequate opportunity for building adult-youth relationships and mentoring.

  • Program length and schedule tailored to student age: The ideal length, dosage, and schedule of the program varies significantly across age groups, and should be designed to maximize participation. For younger students in grades K-5, it is essential that the program schedule is compatible with the entire family. Experts suggest that programs are easiest to access for youth when they run five days a week and go late enough that caregivers can pick up younger students after the workday.

  • Flexible schedules for older students: For middle and high school students, program schedules should allow for more variety and choice. For example, programs can alternate days or offer programs in sessions that last six to eight weeks. One high quality example offers programs on either a Monday-Wednesday or Tuesday-Thursday schedule for six week-long sessions, allowing students to choose to enroll in two different programs concurrently. Noting that older students typically want to keep their Fridays free, the program utilizes Friday for staff professional development or prep time.

  • Free transportation and snacks: Transportation is frequently cited as a central barrier to participation in afterschool programs–including both when programs take place in off-site facilities and when transportation home after dark becomes a concern for parents. Many programs work to eliminate this barrier by providing free transportation to and from the program. Experts also advise that programs provide snacks prior to commencing programming.

  • Engaging activities that center youth voice: Most afterschool programs, particularly for middle and high school students, are voluntary. As such, program attendance often depends on programming being engaging and corresponding with student interests. Experts also emphasize the importance of time for exploration and an atmosphere that feels different than the traditional school day. This may take the form of hands-on, experiential, or activity-based learning, such as theater productions or sports.

  • Minimize common barriers to participation: Cost, transportation, meals, and enrollment processes are commonly cited as barriers that youth from under-resourced environments face in accessing afterschool programs. It is critical that free or low-cost programming or scholarships are made available to ensure that participation is feasible for all youth. Additionally, providing transportation, meals, and transportation, as outlined above, can help mitigate these barriers. Simplifying enrollment processes can lower barriers to entry for families that are less familiar with the system. Programs may also target recruitment efforts to youth who have previously not enrolled to alleviate past enrollment challenges.

  • Utilize culturally-responsive practices: Many successful programs take an asset-based view of communities and allow families and youth to choose the program that best fits their needs. Culturally-responsive practices such as tailoring curriculum to incorporate examples relevant to youths’ lives and hiring staff that have similar lived experience to that of participating youth can help maximize participation and engagement.

  • Allow flexibility to meet changing community needs: Adequately incorporating equity over time requires that it is baked into the program’s continuous improvement process and that mechanisms exist to solicit feedback from community members. This will allow program administrators to understand how to best reach youth that may face barriers to participation. For example, in some communities, older youth may be responsible for caring for younger siblings or contributing to household income. In such cases, allowing teens to bring younger siblings or providing a stipend for participation can enable youth to participate.

  • Consider the effect of rigid program expectations: Experts note that ideally, afterschool programs should be a space where educators can intervene in inequity and try new approaches with youth that are falling behind during the traditional school day. In practice, however, afterschool programs frequently end up amplifying inequity, because programs serving under-resourced environments often face onerous reporting requirements tied to funding, introducing an administrative burden that paid programs serving highly-resourced communities do not face. Being intentional in reporting requirements, while maintaining quality standards, can help support sustainability of programs that serve under-resourced communities.

  • Community-based organizations: Community-based organizations (CBOs) frequently serve as implementation partners, delivering afterschool programs wholly or in partnership with the school district. They typically bring content-area expertise related to specific enrichment activities as well as intimate knowledge of the needs of families in the community.

  • Intermediary nonprofits or afterschool networks: In many jurisdictions across the country., nonprofit intermediaries act as a centralized body that handles logistics and administration of many afterschool programs. This structure reduces the administrative and regulatory burden on smaller CBOs who might otherwise be unable to participate, enables tighter coordination across programs, and creates a single point of contact for families. They also may provide professional development opportunities for CBO partners.

  • Parents, caregivers, and families: Engaging families is crucial in the design and ongoing implementation of programs. Their input helps ensure that programming is valuable, accessible, and meets the needs of the community.

  • District and school leadership: Operating successfully within a school environment requires strong support from district and school leadership. They can help facilitate communications to youth and families about registration and enrollment, provide access to facilities, and assist with logistics.

  • Elected officials and other public sector leaders: Public sector leaders can serve as allies in raising awareness of the availability of afterschool programs and unlocking public funding. They may also enable partnership with municipal agencies themselves, such as with Departments of Parks and Recreation, which are often well-positioned to provide programming for youth.

  • Philanthropic funders: Local philanthropies can help provide the funds needed to scale afterschool programs and reach more students, or provide services needed to reduce barriers to participation like meals or transportation.

  • Embrace collective mentoring and opportunities for youth leadership: Many high-quality programs instill a culture where all staff involved in the program collaborate and are collectively accountable for students. They may share observations during staff meetings, identifying particular student interests or needs, forming a network of supportive adults for youth. Furthermore, experts support the use of multi-age program models, where older youth are able to serve as mentors or group leaders for younger participants and take on responsibility. This allows youth to stay with the program and continue growing as they reach higher grades.

  • Embrace trusted community members in recruiting: While utilizing school staff and teachers in recruiting is crucial, experts also recommend enlisting trusted community members, like parents, faith leaders, and program participants themselves to help recruit more youth into the program. This can increase youth desire to participate and help dispel any notion that the program is purely remedial or punitive.

  • Invest in inter-agency coordination capacity: Administering a comprehensive afterschool program requires significant coordination to ensure adequate funding, staffing, enrollment, and logistical success. A single staff member or dedicated team should lead coordinating and communication efforts across partners, including the school district, school staff, participating nonprofits/community groups, and relevant city agencies.

  • Use strength-based framing: Out-of-school time like afterschool often has negative associations among students, especially around socioeconomic status and academic performance. To address this, program stakeholders should use clear, strength-based language for recruiting students and delivering the program. Core programming should also include dedicated community-building activities and other positive motivations for participation.

  • Set goals and track progress: Afterschool programs can produce a wide range of outcomes for students. Set concrete goals, such as improving GPAs, reducing suspensions, or increasing participation in art classes. These goals should inform everything from program design to partnership choices to recruitment messaging. Track student progress against those goals to measure and refine the program. Importantly, it is vital to involve the school district in any goals set around academic outcomes, allowing for curricula to closely align to what youth are learning in school.

  • Attendance and attrition: Program attendance, attendance over time, and program attrition can be useful indicators in assessing if participants are engaged and feel the program is valuable and meeting their needs.

  • Participant engagement and program atmosphere: Participant engagement, frequently measured via surveys that assess how participants feel about the program, can help inform continuous improvement. Some experts suggest utilizing light walkthrough observational assessments, where program administrators take note of the emotional climate between youth and staff (e.g. if the atmosphere feels supportive and positive, if there are enough materials, or if staff are using open-ended questions).

  • Parental employment: While not linked directly to program outcomes, expert practitioners noted that monitoring employment in the families of participants can help build support within the business community to fund afterschool programs, demonstrating their benefit not only to the youth who participate but to the economic security of families and communities more broadly.

  • Expansive program quality tools: Multiple high-quality measurement tools exist that can aid programs in assessing overall program quality, including linking metrics to desired outcomes. These include the Every Hour Counts Measurement Framework and program quality assessments offered by the Weikart Center for Program Quality.

Evidence-based examples

Higher Achievement is an afterschool program for students in grades 5-8.
Elementary and middle school success
Helping children and adults build behavioral skills and social support systems to encourage physical activity
Stable and healthy families

Results for America would like to thank the following contributors who lent their expertise to the creation of this resource:

  • Dr. Nancy Deutsch: Dr. Deutsch is an Associate Dean and Professor of Education at the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development. She is also the director of Youth-Nex, the UVA Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. Deutsch's research examines the socio-ecological contexts of adolescent development, particularly issues related to identity. She has focused on the role of after-school programs and relationships with important adults and is especially interested in the process of adolescent learning and development as it unfolds within local environments for a better understanding of how to create settings that better support youth, especially those at risk due to economic or sociocultural factors.
  • Ann Durham: Ann is the Executive Director of the Providence Afterschool Alliance. Taking a partnership-minded approach, Ann views PASA’s intermediary role as one that is meant to amplify and support youth-driven organizations throughout Providence. Ann’s previous work at PASA includes the expansion of professional development for OST professionals and leading PASA’s work on the developmental evaluation of the Every Hour Counts Measurement Framework. Ann regularly supports OST intermediaries throughout the country as they look to develop and strengthen their systems-level approach to youth programming. Ann holds a B.A. in English from Skidmore College and an Ed.M. in Sociology and Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.
  • Jennifer Rinehart: Jen Rinehart is a Senior Vice President, Strategy and Programs at the Afterschool Alliance. She takes a primary role in the organization’s coalition building, policy, and research efforts. Jen oversees major initiatives including the Afterschool for All Challenge. In addition, Jen provides technical assistance and supports to the statewide afterschool networks to help them use research to advance their state policy goals and to engage them in federal advocacy efforts. Jen also served for more than five years on the staff of the Department of Education, primarily as a Project Officer for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, the principal federal program supporting afterschool.
  • Wil Cardwell: Wil Cardwell joined Boston After School & Beyond in 2018 and currently serves as the Managing Director of Partnerships and Summer Learning. In this role, he oversees a citywide effort, in collaboration with Boston Public Schools and local community-based agencies, to leverage summer to close student achievement and opportunity gaps.