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Afterschool programs can be safe spaces for students

CY Philly AmeriCorps members with Rebecca Charles

Confidence and belonging in learning environments

As Rebecca Charles wrapped up her year of service as a City Year Philadelphia AmeriCorps member a few years ago, she found herself reflecting on all the reasons why a student may want to come to school every day or decide to stay away, instead. She learned how caring adults, including AmeriCorps members, can help to create learning environments where young people thrive and feel welcomed and valued.

Key to that environment, Rebecca said, are afterschool and extracurricular programs that can tap into students’ talents and passions and make school feel engaging and safe. Academic studies back this up. As far back as 1995, the National Center for Education Statistics found that participation in extracurricular programs helped improve student attendance, achievement and aspirations for postsecondary education. Other studies report higher grade point averages and high school graduation rates for students who participate in programs such as debate team, theater and sports.

Accessing afterschool and extracurricular programs is an educational equity issue

The lack of access to high-quality extracurricular activities can contribute to a widening equity gap. Students who grow up in lower-income neighborhoods of often do not have equitable access to enrichment or afterschool opportunities or resources, which can place them at a disadvantage in terms of both skill development and the strength of their college applications, where experience beyond the classroom—whether athletics, scouting, the arts or volunteer opportunities—is critically important.

Growing up in Wisconsin, Rebecca felt her school was a fun and supportive environment where she had her choice of afterschool clubs, often run by parents of students who attended her school. Those clubs gave students who may have felt out of place in class or the playground a chance to really shine and explore their talents, she says.

“There was always an afterschool option for kids with all kinds of interests,” Rebecca recalled. “For me, the school’s drama club and just having the arts helped me to have a more positive experience, especially when I started high school.”

The experience for some students today is notably different. Not all schools offer afterschool programs and extracurriculars such as music, dance and student government, which can be powerful tools to inspire some students to come to school. And even when schools do offer such programs, many students are unable to access them.

According to a 2015 study from the Annenberg Institute, Inequity outside the classroom: Growing class differences in participation in extracurricular activities:

“While public schools theoretically provide equal access to afterschool activities to all enrolled students, the reality is that access has become increasingly limited to children from middle- and upper-class families. In our recent study, we examined trends in extracurricular participation from the 1970s to today. . . . Our findings are alarming: while upper-middle-class students have become more active in school clubs and sports teams since the 1970s, working-class students have become increasingly disengaged and disconnected, their participation rates plummeting in the 1990s and remaining low ever since.”

These challenges can translate into low attendance rates, student disengagement and low graduation rates. Sometimes, however, finding one interest or passion can be enough to keep students in school.

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Learn more about how social-emotional support can help students recover from disrupted learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Afterschool and extracurricular programs can keep students engaged

Knowing how much afterschool programs meant to her when she was a student and how they can help disengaged students connect with their school community, Rebecca decided she would start Drama Club and International Club at her K-8 school in Philadelphia.

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Learn how Vanessa Figueroa started a Spanish Club during her service with City Year Sacramento to connect with her students.

“In school, Drama Club meant so much to me and shaped who I am today, so I wanted to introduce my students to the world of performing arts and theater,” Rebecca said. “I also started the International Club because I’ve been very lucky to have had the opportunity to travel to different countries, and I wanted to get my kids excited about what’s outside of the U.S. and their hometown, Philadelphia.”

In Drama Club, Rebecca taught improvisation to help her students learn important skills like thinking on your feet, how to interact with others and how to have engaging conversations, which are all important for building relationships and developing key interpersonal skills.

In International Club, Rebecca and her students “traveled” all over the world, focusing on geography, culture and food, a topic her students were most interested in. She was even able to take a few of them on a special trip to a nearby restaurant to try phở, a traditional Vietnamese soup, for the first time. This trip was especially important to Rebecca because she was able to teach the kids, through eating food, the similarities between vastly different cultures.

“It’s hard to see immediate results with students, especially in eighth grade,” she said. “But you can see it in the very small, everyday things, like when one of my students raises their hand to ask questions in class because that’s something we worked on together or when one decides to hold their tongue instead of saying something that might be hurtful. It’s the small things that might be hard for someone to measure, but I can see the impact.”

Extracurriculars can help students develop a sense of identity and agency

As her class of eighth graders transitioned to high school, Rebecca hoped that her students would continue to pursue their passions and develop their self-confidence and initiative.

“I want them to enter high school knowing that they can and should advocate for themselves whenever necessary,” Rebecca said. “City Year corps members spend a lot of their time advocating for students but also teaching students how to do so for themselves.”

Rebecca entered Columbia University to obtain her master’s degree in social work. She planned to work in education policy, helping to change many of the systematic issues that keep students across the country from completing high school and pursuing their dreams and, by nature, continuing the work she started in her classroom with City Year.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in July 2019 and has been updated in March 2023. We caught up with Rebecca in October 2022; learn about her job as a policy and advocacy associate at the Citizen’s Committee for Children of New York.

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