| | By Joyce Tsai
While pregnant with her second child, Vicki Davis was anxious to find an after-school class that would give her daughter a sense of belonging outside of the home, after the baby was born. After searching high and low, she found Fairy Magic, an enrichment class offered by the Parent Teacher Association at Malcolm X Elementary School in Berkeley, where her daughter was already enrolled. The class not only appealed to her daughter's love of fairies and dressing up, it also allowed Davis' then-kindergartener to stay within her school environment, immediately after the school bell rang.
"I didn't have to go anywhere to pick her up and drop her off," Davis said. "And her classroom that year had a lot of boys, so what was also really good about the class is that she met 10 little girls that all shared the same interests, and so she was able to make friends in her grade, but not necessarily her class."
But a few months into the school year, Davis learned that the volunteer parents running those classes would not be offering them again the following year. So Davis and another volunteer agreed to take over the program. Four years later, the PTA-sponsored after-school enrichment program Davis runs at Malcolm X is one of the most robust in the Berkeley school district, with 27 different classes offering activities such as coding, classic animation, LEGO robotics, and comic-book storytelling. She even enlisted the help of her software developer husband to create an online registration system that revolutionized the unwieldy and antiquated paper process of signing up for classes. And she's shared it with other Berkeley schools as well.
But despite these big improvements she's made to her daughter's school and others, Davis, who is executive vice president of the PTA at Malcolm X, says there's much more work to be done. She said parents on the district-wide PTA Council have been complaining about the unevenness of after-school offerings in Berkeley schools. She's part of a district task force on improving the district's after-school programs, which are offered at all of its 11 elementary schools and three middle schools to care for students in the hours of 2:30 p.m. and 6 p.m., when many parents are still at work. Since February, the task force has been examining ways to improve both inequality and access to quality after-school programs for kids throughout the school district. The district also is undergoing an assessment by UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Education of its after-school programs to find key areas of improvement, whose results are scheduled to be presented to the task force in September. And the taskforce's final recommendations will be provided soon after, district officials said.
"We hope to completely redesign after-school at the district, so it's equitable at every site, and so that it meets the needs of every family that wants it," Davis said. "Right now, it varies greatly from school to school in the city. There are some very great programs with very great staff, and for others, it looks like babysitting — not to knock babysitting — but we want to create something where all kids are able to get both robust enrichment and academic support after-school."
Some Berkeley schools offer a ton of specialized PTA enrichment classes, while others have few or none at all, she said. And some schools' after-school programs can accept all students that apply, while others have long waiting lists with caps on enrollment. Notification of admission into these after-school programs often comes late — shortly before the school year starts or sometimes after it's already started — which often leaves working families scrambling for after-school care for their young kids.
Rachel Eisner, a parent at Washington Elementary, said she, like many other parents, went into the decision of choosing which elementary school to send her kids focused mainly on the quality of school day programs.
"I made the naive assumption that 'Oh, it's Berkeley. It's a good school district and we live here because of its good schools, and so the after-school programs must be good, too,'" she said. "But I know that families have left my school because they couldn't accommodate their kids in the after-school and because there are more options at other schools, so it's discouraging."
For instance, at Rosa Parks Elementary, there are no waiting lists for its after-school program and participation is upward of 70 percent of the student body. It offers a wide range of enrichment classes including jiujitsu, coding, cooking, creative writing, and hip-hop dance, while Washington has waiting lists with only 30 percent of the student body enrolled in the after-school program, and no PTA enrichment courses offered at all.
"There's an inequity here," Eisner said. "It just all feels like a patchwork quilt. Of all elementary schools in the city of Berkeley, not a single one has the same structure in after-school offerings, And those structures each depend on the peculiarities and history of each site, depend on the level of parent involvement and engagement, depend on whether they have outside vendors running them, or in the case of one school, Rosa Parks, if corporate partnerships were formed, so it's a strange series of patches in which it's every site for itself."
Yet, even more troubling to some parents is that Berkeley has two separate district-run after-school programs, one called BEARS and the other called LEARNS. And they seem to be creating, in the eyes of some, separate and unequal after-school systems. BEARS is offered all year round for low-income students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, while LEARNS charges on a sliding scale based on family income, is open to all students, and is offered only during the school year. Because of their separate funding streams and associated grant requirements, the programs require different teacher-to-student classroom ratios and instructors with different levels of early childhood education credentials — which often leads to classes with more minority and economically disadvantaged kids being taught in separate classrooms from those with predominately white and more affluent families.
"The two programs tend to be separate at school sites, and I don't think that's beneficial to anybody," said Madan Kumar, the president of the Washington Elementary PTA. "I don't think that is sending a message I want to send kids. I'd rather have kids all play together, have fun together, and do things together.
Kumar added that after-school programs are a missed opportunity to provide more academic support to the kids who need it. "Those hours between 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. should be considered an extension of that school day," he said, added that there should be active coordination between teachers and after-school staff.
Aaron Jorgensen, the school district's program supervisor of extended learning, said he agrees that some inherent inequities are created by the funding models for BEARS and LEARNS, as well as in the fact that PTAs don't offer the same programs or have the same resources dedicated to after-school enrichment in all schools. But the task force is helping the district to look at the inequities and quality of offerings and come up with some recommendations on how to make improvements in the short-, mid-, and long-term, he said.
"Ideally, we would be able to provide a seamless program funded by multiple revenue streams to serve all students together where the after-school program is an extension of the school day," he said. "However, there are state and federal conditions for receiving the various funds that have up until now prevented us from being able to combine the programs in a more holistic way."
The funding for each program, which are audited and thus must follow state and federal guidelines to remain in compliance, arose at different times based on federal and state legislation and have different grant requirements as a result, he said. But the district has also reached out to state legislators in hopes of changing requirements that end up keeping the two programs separate.
Funds for BEARS originated with Title V funding from the federal government and require 14:1 student-teacher ratios and be taught by staff members who have early childhood or childhood development credentials. Meanwhile, LEARNS funding comes from state grants, which require student-teacher ratios of 20:1 and don't require the staff to have completed as much child development coursework.
In many ways, the fragmented nature of after-school and its other extended learning offerings in Berkeley reflects the landscape nationwide, said Georgia Hall, director and senior research scientist for National Institute on Out-of-School Time, which studies the impact of extended learning programs nationwide.
"It's a pretty complicated labyrinth of structures and implementation strategies around out-of- school time programs, and it does open up issues of equity and resources," she said.
Yet, the research is clear that after-school programs have a positive impact on school attendance and attitude toward school as well as on kids' socio-emotional skills development and, in some cases, on their academic performance — if it's a high-quality program, she said.
Although after-school programs can greatly vary, there's a strong consensus from the research on what makes a quality program, said Jennifer Sloan McCombs, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, who has studied the impact of after-school programs nationwide. "For these programs to be high quality and effective, they need to be really intentional."
"They need to know what they are trying to accomplish and try to plan for that, so that they have activities that link with those outcomes, so that these high-quality programs are sequenced and skilled-based," she said. She added that they also have a staff with strong interpersonal skills and relationships with youth, with the adults helping to foster healthy relationships between children.
In the end, "high-quality after-school programs keep kids active and busy by engaging them in meaningful and enriching activities that build on each other and lead to something — and that goes beyond just providing a safe environment for youth," she said. Not only do after-school programs provide a safe place for kids to have fun, but they're also of great financial help to parents, she added.
That's something all families deserve.
Kids practice martial arts at a LeConte Elementary after-school program. Berkeley school officials say it does a strong job of integrating its BEARS and LEARNS after-school programs. Photo by Lance Yamamoto.