Kelly Riding: We can solve Utah’s shortage of after-school programs

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Taylee Randall and Christian Takluem in an after school piano class at Salt Lake City's Bennion Elementary, which might be closing due to low enrollment. The school district is holding a meeting Tuesday Feb. 19, 2019 to discuss the issue and hear from parents.

Each weekday afternoon, the final school bell marks not an end, but the start of a transition as children go from the classroom to some other activity. After-school activities vary and depend on many factors. In recent weeks, we’ve been reminded that it’s not a given that one of the best options – after-school programs where children can flourish under the watchful eyes of caring adults – will be available. Tight budgets and the popularity of these programs have combined to create a shortage and, as a result, local programs have long waiting lists, forcing some parents to scramble to find a safe and reliable alternative. This is not only a problem in Salt Lake City, but throughout the state.

After-school programs provide a vital service, keeping kids safe, inspiring them to learn, and giving working parents the peace of mind that comes from knowing your child is safe and constructively occupied. While in after-school, K-12 students encounter a rich array of fun and educational activities, ranging from building robots to writing and performing songs, from exercise and sports to field trips, from getting help with homework to planting and tending a garden.

Earlier this year, the Utah Afterschool Network released its first-ever report on the State of Afterschool. Drawing on the Afterschool Alliance’s America After 3PM report, we found that eight in 10 Utah parents of children in after-school say the programs give working parents peace of mind in the afternoons. Nearly nine in 10 say they’re satisfied with their child’s program. Parents also recognize the value after-school programs offer to our future workforce. Nearly seven in 10 agree that after-school programs help children gain workforce skills.

Formal studies of after-school programs make clear that parents are right to feel satisfied that their children’s after-school programs are a good investment. Reams of data demonstrate that programs help children in virtually every meaningful aspect of their development. According to the research, after-school helps them succeed in school, improving attendance, behavior, grades and test scores.

After-school helps them learn to work in teams – a skill that will serve them well in the workforce. After-school helps them cultivate social and emotional skills and competencies, offering supportive mentors and creating a safe space where students can explore their interests and build confidence in their abilities.

Our children spend four-fifths of their time out of school, but they don’t stop learning when the final bell rings. They’re soaking up information every minute they’re awake, in school, on the playground, with families and peers, watching television or playing video games. Every bit of information they absorb shapes their understanding of the world and how they fit into it. That’s why it’s so important to put the time between the end of the school day and the end of the workday to good use, and one of the many reasons after-school programs fill such a vital need.

Demand for after-school programs across the state continues to far outpace the supply of programs. To help children and families get the after-school programs they need and deserve, we need policy makers, business and education leaders at all levels and to work together to increase financial support.

This month, after-school programs around the state will celebrate Lights On Afterschool, which is the only nationwide event recognizing after-school programs and their important role in the lives of children, families and communities.

We encourage all community members to advocate for these vital programs. Unless we do, even more parents will struggle and even more children will be unsupervised, at risk, and without opportunities to learn after the school day ends.

Kelly Riding | Executive Director of the Utah Afterschool Network

Kelly Riding is executive director of the Utah Afterschool Network.