An Interview with Jennifer Peck: Afterschool Champion

May 21, 2012 by

Jennifer Peck

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Jennifer, first of all, when did you first get involved in “after school“ programs?
  • When I worked at the U.S. Department of Education, during the period when President Bill Clinton significantly increased funding for after school programs. Part of my job was making sure schools in low-income communities knew about the funding and knew how to access it. I spent time visiting federally-funded programs and began to understand how important they were to the children and families in those communities.
  1. In your mind, why are they important?
  • For several reasons. One is that the after school hours are a wonderful time for kids to explore activities and projects that they might not get to enjoy during the traditional school day. Another is that unsupervised time after school can equal trouble for lots of kids, so it’s important that the children of working families have a safe and fun place to be after school. Finally, many children need more time for learning and different ways to learn than they get in the classroom, and high quality after school programs can reinforce and enhance academic content in very creative and effective ways.

3) Many across the United States have advocated for a longer school day – or longer school year. Which would be more appropriate? Or both?

  • The idea of lengthening the school day is getting a lot of attention right now. The important question is: what you do with that extra time? If the time is used creatively to engage students for a longer day and that leads to better educational outcomes, that’s a good thing. But a longer school day isn’t what all kids need. Many middle and higher income children are doing fine academically under the current school schedule, and their lives are enriched with after school sports, art classes, music lessons and many other activities. We need to be very careful about mandating more time in school for the kids who are struggling – largely low-income children – who deserve the same kinds of opportunities as their higher income peers. We should first focus on improving what we do in all schools with the hours we have, and provide additional academic enrichment for all who need it through after school programs or extended school days.

4) What is this ”Breakfast of Champions“ award all about?

  • Each year the Afterschool Alliance, a national advocacy organization, honors a group of after school advocates nominated by their own states. The awards are presented at a breakfast on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, during which numerous Members of Congress come and talk about their commitment to after school program funding. It was a real honor to receive their After School Champion award this year and the D.C. event was very inspiring.

5) I was actually, many years ago, asked to set up an “afterschool program“ based on Howard Gardner’s ideas of Multiple Intelligences. Can you give us one example of a stellar afterschool program?

  • We have a lot of good programs in the Bay Area. I’ll mention one favorite, the Sunset Neighborhood Beacon Center in San Francisco which focuses on middle school kids. They design their programs around a club structure and the students have a lot of choices about the rotating roster of activities during the year, many of which include technology and lots of hands-on learning. Also, the fun activities in their after school clubs are aligned to California state content standards so students’ academic skills are being reinforced while they are having fun. It’s not always easy to keep middle school kids interested, but this program has a waiting list because they are so good at designing exciting programming, have excellent, well-trained staff, and in turn are keeping kids consistently involved, all of which is critical to good outcomes.

6) Tell us about this Afterschool Alliance? Do they have a web page?

  • The Afterschool Alliance advocates with federal policymakers for increased funding for afterschool programs and you can learn more about their work at www.afterschoolalliance.org. The organization I lead, the Partnership for Children and Youth has information about our after school initiatives at http://partnerforchildren.org/what-we-do/out-of-school-time-initiatives/after-school

7) Obviously, we want all kids to be “successful “. In terms of academics, what seems to be important elements of an effective afterschool program?

  • One of the most important is that the academic enrichment portion of the after school program are aligned to the goals and curriculum of the school. For example, if the classroom teacher is working on fractions, the after school cooking class can emphasize the measurement of ingredients and have kids practice fractions in a hands-on, practical and fun way. High quality after school programs have been implementing very creative activities that are aligned in this way in areas such as literacy, math, science and more.

8) What about other areas – physical education, art, music, drama, social skills? Do any after school programs address these areas?

  • Just about all after school programs offer some kind of physical activity like traditional sports, dance or outdoor games. Kids can’t spend too much time sitting, and the additional physical activity is important for their health. Outside of that, the activities really depend upon the program and the students’ interests and the best programs offer students a variety of activities to participate in. One of the real strengths of after school programs is the relationship building that occurs between the students and their after school teachers, who in many cases are young people themselves or may be from their own community and can connect with them in a different way than their regular school day teachers. Study after study has shown that the relationships developed between students and instructors in after school programs can have a huge positive effect on school engagement and consistent school attendance.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

  • Well, with summer fast approaching, about the importance of summertime learning! Summer is another critical time to make sure that academic enrichment and learning opportunities are available to all children, because “summer learning loss” is a major factor in the achievement gap between low and middle income children. In fact, summer learning loss can be blamed for about two-thirds of the whole achievement gap by the 9th grade year, according to studies from Johns Hopkins University. Also, many kids gain weight more rapidly during summer if they lose access to their school-year organized physical activity programs and meal programs. Summer learning programs are the big missing piece in our educational support system for children in this country, and we have to fix that. In California, the Partnership for Children and Youth is spearheading a campaign called “Summer Matters” to raise awareness about the vital importance of summer learning and expand opportunities for and access to quality summer learning programs. We’ve got a lot of momentum and anyone who’s interested can learn more about it at www.summermatters2you.net.
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