A Different Kind of Child Development Institution: The History of After-School Programs for Low-Income Children
by Robert Halpern - 2002
Over the past decade politicians and policy makers, the media, child development professionals, and parents have focused increasing attention on the after-school hours of children aged 6 to 14, coming to view this daily time period as one of unusual “risk and opportunity” (Hofferth 1995). Attention to the after-school hours has led in turn to renewed interest in a longstanding child development institution, after-school programs, particularly those serving low- and moderate-income children. This article examines the historical development of after-school programs serving low-income children including objectives and practices in each era, formative influences, implementation challenges, and role in children’s lives. In a final section, the author discusses the current pressures facing the after-school field and suggests an appropriate set of purposes and expectations for the coming years.
Over the past decade politicians, policy makers, the media, child development professionals, and parents have focused increasing attention on the after-school hours of children aged 6 to 14, coming to view this daily time period as one of unusual risk as well as opportunity. The risks perceived for these hours range from boredom, worry, and "idleness" to self- and socially-destructive behavior; the opportunities for this time range from caring relationships with adults to enrichment to extra academic learning time. Attention to the after-school hours has led in turn to renewed interest in a longstanding child-development institution-after-school programs, particularly those serving low- and moderate-income children. There are new government-funded, after-school initiatives, new foundation grant programs, and efforts by scores of community groups around the country to create more after-school programs in their communities. Some 20 to 25 percent of low- and moderate-income urban children aged 6 to 14 (perhaps 3 to 4 million children) now spend three to five afternoons a week (and sometimes all day during the summer) in after-school programs, and participation rates appear to be growing. Following home and school, after-school programs are coming to be a third critical developmental setting for low- and moderate-income children.
Given renewed societal interest and growing participation in after-school programs, it is an appropriate moment to step back and examine the evolution of their role in low-income children's lives and reflect on what that role ought to be in the coming years. This article attempts these two tasks by examining the objectives and practices of after-school programs in each historical era, the formative influences, their implementation challenges, and the role of these programs in children's lives. As the historical account reveals, the after-school field has a rich and interesting tradition of service to children. Yet it is also a field that has struggled to define and remain true to a coherent set of assumptions and purposes. After-school programs have defined themselves in terms of protection, care, opportunity for enrichment, and play while simultaneously defining themselves in terms of socialization, acculturation, training, and problem remediation.. Providers have argued that program activities should be shaped by children's interests and preferences and yet also be shaped by what they as adults thought children needed. Proponents have sometimes found it easier to define after-school programs by what they were not-family, school, the streets-than by what they were.
There are many reasons for what might be called the struggle for identity within the after-school field. These include how and why the field first emerged, the diversity of sponsorship, the voluntary nature of children's participation, and American society's basic ambivalence about low-income children and their support needs. This struggle has, ironically, had some positive consequences. It has given after-school programs room to be a different kind of child-development institution-one that mostly avoidspathologizing low-income children and one that can identify gaps in children's lives and try to fill them. It has allowed after-school programs to be adult-directed institutions where the adult agenda is relatively modest. And it has allowed them to be responsive to changing needs and circumstances in the lives of low-income children. Yet, lacking a defensible alternative (or conviction in their own convictions), after-school programs have found it difficult to resist pressures to contribute to what Kozol (2000) describes as the harsh societal agenda for low-income children. They have been unable to resist pressures to promise more than was commensurate with their means; and they have been especially unable to resist pressures to promise to compensate for what other child-development institutions should be but are not providing low-income children.