5 strategies for a successful after-school program

In Bethel School District, like many others, the demand for after-school programs has surged. Here's how we scaled up while connecting to key goals and priorities.

In Bethel School District, like many others, the demand for after-school programs has surged. According to findings from the Afterschool Alliance’s America After 3PM survey, for every child in an after-school program, three are waiting to get in.

In the last 10 years, enrollment in our district has increased from 18,000 to more than 21,000 students, exacerbating capacity issues in our schools. Despite our growing population, our after-school provider was only able to serve about 120 kids, which meant waiting lists were long.

Families who sought other options often found it difficult to locate childcare near their child’s school, so they requested transfers. I oversee transfers, and with our schools over capacity, it was a challenge to grant those requests.

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Here are five strategies we have implemented to overcome these challenges and provide an extended day program that works for our community.

1. Trust, but verify after-school programs

We researched after-school providers, and in the fall of 2018, we decided to take the next step with Right At School. They had strong references from other districts. They also promised that they could scale up to meet demand and run a structured program, which would mean fewer behavior challenges.

While that appealed to us, we decided to test the waters rather than jump in immediately. Our school board gave us a year to see if they could deliver on their promises. We also invited our existing provider to meet our expanded criteria, but they couldn’t match what the new provider was offering.

2. Get feedback from school leaders

While I was excited about the prospect of serving more students, our school principals were skeptical. Since I supervise and support our principals, I heard all about their concerns. Some said they had problematic experiences with past providers. Others had never offered an extended day program and worried it would create a lot of extra work.

Once the program got up and running, however, their worries dissipated. Our partner handled all facets of program implementation, from the curriculum to the hiring and training of staff to marketing and registration. They also dealt with any issues that arose, which was a relief to our principals.

When I surveyed our principals at the end of that first year, their responses were very positive. “We got this one right. It’s good for our kids and our community. Well done, Bethel!” It was nice to present statements like that to the school board.

3. Offer flexible, scalable options for families

The before and after school enrichment program is now offered in 17 of our 18 elementary schools. We chose not to offer the program in one school since it is very rural.

Families can sign up for the morning or afternoon program or both, and for as many days as they need during the week. Care is also offered during non-school days and breaks since parents’ work schedules often differ from school schedules.

We implement a parent-paid program model in Bethel. However, since approximately half of our students receive free or reduced-price lunch, the program also accepts state subsidies and federal grants, including funding provided by the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program.

4. Connect to district priorities

A key goal of our extended day program is to provide enrichment, not just supervision. So, our students participate in learning activities that explore math, science, reading, writing, social studies, the arts, physical fitness, and service learning. Students receive homework help every afternoon. They engage in self-directed learning as well as games and sports. Social-emotional learning is woven into the curriculum as well.

SEL has been a priority in Bethel for years. To create consistency between our classrooms and the before and after school program, we invited the program staff to participate in professional development in our SEL curriculum, Second Step, alongside our staff. This helps us ensure that everyone is using the same language and strategies, and it has resulted in more consistent student behavior across our schools.

5. Find a partner, not just a provider

At the beginning, our new partner made several promises, and many sounded unrealistic because we have had experiences with providers that haven’t been perfect. But we gave them a chance to deliver, and they did.

Our before and after school program now serves more than 740 students a day. With a program of this size, issues are bound to come up. This is why it is critical to find a partner with the knowledge and experience to be proactive, and the ability to be responsive and address any challenges head-on.

When I talk with parents, they tell me their children enjoy the program and look forward to it. They say they feel comfortable dropping their kids off because they know they will be safe and well cared for, and they appreciate the quality of the curriculum and staffing.

Over the last five years, our before and after school program has become a point of pride for us. So, when we attend career fairs or recruit, particularly for hard-to-fill positions, we like to mention that we have an extended day enrichment program and that it’s discounted for staff. It has been a helpful recruiting tool during staffing shortages.

We care deeply for our students and are proud that we can provide them with opportunities to participate in meaningful activities that boost their sense of belonging, bolster their skills, and help them be better kids during and outside of school time.

Kelley Boynton
Kelley Boynton
Kelley Boynton is the executive director of elementary schools for Bethel School District, which covers over 200 square miles in southeast Pierce County, Washington. The K-12 district enrolls more than 21,000 students across 31 schools.

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