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FINE Newsletter, Volume IV, Issue 2
Issue Topic: Family–Afterschool Partnerships for Learning

Voices from the Field

Samantha Grant is an Extension Educator for Program Evaluation at the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Youth Development. As part of her work, she has designed and implemented evaluations for youth workers and with youth in the Minnesota 4-H program. Her research focuses on building and evaluating high-quality learning environments for all youth. She contributes to the Center for Youth Development blogYouth Development Insight—on topics of evaluation and quality. Her most rewarding (but exhausting) job is raising two young children to be caring, contributing individuals.

Out-of-school time providers beware! I'm a parent and know a lot about program quality. Last week as my daughter pirouetted her way into her dance class, I found her dance teacher looking at forms instead of greeting the students. I understand the demands of balancing 20 things at once. But I couldn't help thinking about how this non-greeting affects the learning environment.

I get it that I'm not the typical parent—as a program evaluator, I spend the majority of my day thinking about how youth programs work and how to make them better. I take on parenting with the same eye for improvement, trying to access the best quality out-of-school time programs for my child that I can. I also want to ensure that I’m able to meaningfully connect my child’s interests with out-of-school time programs and that I know how to extend her learning at home and in the broader community.

I didn’t choose youth work by accident. I do truly believe that the experiences that youth get from programs outside of the school day have major impacts on their learning and development. As a parent, I think quality out-of-school time programs are important in fostering youth’s development in many areas, including:

Socialization—Especially for my young children, learning more about being part of a group, building friendships, and growing in social competence are vitally important. Youth also need the opportunity to build relationships with other adults to become part of a community. Out-of-school time programs do this so well. 

Developing new skills and passions—Out-of-school time opportunities allow youth to try something new or dig deeper into something they really love. In a classroom setting, there is only so much time that a student can spend on a particular subject, but out-of-school time is a place for curiosity to be born and grow.

The out-of-school time field has made significant strides in educating future professionals about quality programs. But what about the parents? Who is helping them to make better decisions about out-of-school time activities? I haven’t gotten the memo yet telling me how to sort these things out, so, as a parent, I have to muddle through the biannual Community Education Brochure descriptions of youth programs (which usually are three sentences or fewer) and then take a blind leap of faith in registering my child.

Making that leap, I expect a few things from my child’s out-of-school time experience. To me these are pretty basic, but not always fulfilled:

    1. I want the instructor to learn my child’s name and greet her when she enters the room. This helps her to feel a sense of belonging in the group and helps her to build a relationship with a caring adult.
    2. I want a staff ratio that allows my child to be noticed. There is nothing I hate more than showing up at a program only to find out that there is one instructor for 30 children.
    3. I want to hear that an instructor can manage and guide negative behavior. I get the front-line report from my child’s perspective, which gives a good indication of what an instructor does with unruly behavior.
    4. I would like to have communication from the program. This could be a more thorough description of what will be covered in the class or it could be brief memos sent home.
    5. Finally, I want to see that my child is having fun while learning something new. An out-of-school time program should match or expand upon a youth’s interests. 

The one thing that drives me absolutely crazy as a parent is when someone advertises a program by saying, “It’s cheap.” Really! Does the word “cheap” conjure up images of a rewarding learning experience? As a parent, of course I care about cost, but I would prefer to pay more for one or two quality programs per year than for less expensive ones that don’t offer my child as many meaningful learning experiences. I also want programs to more specifically target particular grade levels since developmentally-appropriate programming is different for different ages. Programs that purport to serve youth in grades 1–8, for example, have a harder time creating intentional ways to serve all youth since the age range is so wide. In fact, I would prefer that programs focus on a more narrow age range if it means that the program is better able to serve the youth involved.

I think we have the obligation as parents to learn more about out-of-school time activities. As I noted previously, parents often receive little communication about the program that their children are in. I think it’s important to ask questions of out-of-school time providers. This could mean making a phone call before registering for a program or talking to the teacher after a program. For instance, I’ve called program directors to learn more about the skills that will be taught in a class to better match the activity with my child’s skill level. I also make a point of introducing myself to my child’s teacher and at least having informal conversation. I believe that this open communication allows me to learn more about my child’s out-of-school time experiences and allows me to make more informed decisions.

As an involved parent, I also want to be able to extend and build the interest that my child develops in programs. If she’s taking a science class, I want to be able to talk to her about the concepts, check out books from the library, and try out some new experiments at home. If I have no idea what happened inside the program, this is hard for me to do. Parents don’t always need to be part of the activity (and there are sometimes good reasons to keep us out!), but it would be nice to get a small description of what was covered—ideally with some tips for how to build on the activity to help maintain the momentum of my child’s interest. 

I have just dipped my baby toe in the experience of searching for quality out-of-school time programs. From my first years of experience, I can say that it’s difficult for parents to get all things right in selecting a quality program, but when this happens, it’s purely magical. And that’s what I want for all children.


This resource is part of the June 2012 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family involvement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archive of past issues, please visit www.hfrp.org/FINENewsletter.

© 2014 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project