By Renee Haines
Many parents already grappling with which backpack is best and back-to-school supply aisles at neighborhood stores have another biggie on their list for the upcoming start of another new school year: finding the right after-school program.
Will it be traditional after-school programs that focus on homework help, arts-minded programs like the acting classes offered by Performing Arts San Antonio or athletics-minded fare like “i play!” classes from San Antonio Sports?
For San Antonio parent Carol Covert, the answer was all of the above. Her twin sons, now 15, participated in academic, art and athletic programs during their elementary and middle school years at San Antonio Academy of Texas. The private school for boys offers programs in all three arenas, she says.
Her advice for other parents? “There are plenty of choices, but if you push them, if you make them do something, they’re going to hate it,” Covert says.
Her sons participated in the school’s arts programs and an after-school chess club. “One of them dropped piano and picked up guitar,” she says. They have attended scouting programs and a young astronaut’s club. Team sports also have been on her kids’ after-school roster in past years.
While academics and the arts have been important, so have programs that involve physical exercise. “It’s not just about the brain; the body needs exercise,” she says.
Brainpower, body power
Manners count, too, says Dan Gonzalez, owner and chief instructor at S.A. Kid’s Karate. “Karate begins with courtesy and respect. For a kid, that translates to be good, be nice, behave.”
Gonzalez, a 40-year veteran of the Asia-born practice of self-defense, says parental and participant expectations “have changed tremendously” over the past two decades. “Forty years ago, you didn’t have kids under the age of 10 doing it. These days, kids as young as 4 and 5 take karate. More girls are involved,” he says.
“Even though self-defense and anti-bullying are a big part of it, parents wants their kids to learn discipline, to increase their activities,” says Gonzalez, whose children are 10 and 13. ‘The whole ranking system – white belt, yellow belt, black belt – is teaching them to listen, to set goals. When you listen, you understand the task and you can complete it.”
Gonzalez says S.A. Kid’s Karate was the first non-school-based after-school program in San Antonio to offer transportation from public schools to the karate school’s two San Antonio locations. “We helped write the legislation that allowed all the after-school programs to do this,” Gonzalez says. His program offers transportation from 25 Northside Independent School District schools.
Forty years of studies have demonstrated positive physical and intellectual benefits from exercise for children. As more schools reduce or eliminate traditional physical education programs, more after-school programs are focusing on or adding physical activity to the schedule.
“I’ve had parents says all their kids want to do is play video games,” Gonzalez says. “Parents tell us they want their kids to be more active.”
San Antonio Sports, which successfully lobbied to bring the NCAA Final Four to San Antonio in 2018, offers after-school sessions on competitive soccer, track, volleyball, tennis and golf to kids at 45 San Antonio area elementary schools.
The After School Challenge program of the City of San Antonio Department of Human Services offers a combined focus on academics and physical activity at its after-school initiative in place at more than 130 elementary and middle schools. Recreational activities share the schedule with tutoring and homework help. This program’s sliding fee structure is based in part on family income.
Say Si (San Antonio Youth Yes) is a tuition-free after-school arts program that offers visual arts, theater and multimedia arts classes to qualifying middle and high school students at the organization’s facility in downtown’s Blue Star Arts Complex neighborhood. This program also focuses on building social and academic skills.
Other after-school programs are offered by community-based organizations, individual schools, public libraries, faith-based institutions and local childcare facilities.
An after-school report card
When the National Association of Independent Schools studied what factors in elementary, middle and high schools led to successful college completion rates, the organization looked at class size, teaching quality, standards and other variables.
“Surprisingly, by far, the most significant variable that impacted success in college was student involvement in after-school activities,” says John Webster, head of school at San Antonio Academy of Texas. At his private boys’ school, participation in after-school activities was 100 percent last year.
“Studies show that when students participate in after-school activities, their relationship with the school becomes stronger, and they develop a greater sense of ownership in their school experience,” Webster said in a letter posted on his school’s website. “That stronger ownership evolves into responsibility and accountability at school.”
While quality and costs can vary, the U.S. Department of Education reports that high-quality after-school programs lead to measurably better grades and conduct in school, better attendance and improved social skills measured by emotional adjustment and peer relationships. The federal agency’s studies also cite fewer incidents of drug use, violence and pregnancy.
A check-off list
From the national nonprofit Child Care Aware, a list of potential questions for after-school directors to determine which program is best for your child includes queries about instructor training, financial assistance options, licensing, safety training and references.
The ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education at New York’s Columbia University also suggests finding out about any additional fees charged for extras such as tutoring, field trips or late pickups if you’re detained at work. For example, some programs charge a dollars-per-minute fee to parents for picking up their kids after formal operating hours.
Other nonprofits and government agencies recommend asking:
- Is the program age-appropriate for your child?
- Are drop-in visits by parents welcome?
- Will your child learn something new?
- Is the facility safe and welcoming for kids?