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

Voices from the Field

Until recently Priscilla M. Little was Associate Director of Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP), responsible for oversight of all of HFRP’s afterschool research and evaluation work, with a special emphasis on family engagement in afterschool. She is now an independent consultant whose clients include national education research firms, state education agencies, nonprofit agencies, and private foundations. Her commitment to afterschool remains at the core of her current work.

In 2000, when I was still working at HFRP, I became a member of what a colleague of mine nicknamed the “afterschool posse”—a group of about 10 of us from national research and capacity-building organizations who met regularly. We took advantage of every possible opportunity to speak at conferences about issues related to afterschool, distill and disseminate the burgeoning number of research studies on the subject, help programs do a better job of connecting with kids, and spread the word about the important role that afterschool programs could play in kids’ lives. Since that time, the afterschool field has undergone a major transformation, fundamentally shifting its initial orientation from a “safe haven” for kids whose parents were working to a core component of a holistic approach to education.

Fast forward a dozen years since the early days of the posse, and afterschool now passes the litmus test of being a “field,” with a sound evidence base, accepted standards of practice, leadership and grassroots advocacy support, wide-reaching information exchange, and systemic supports and policies for sustainability. What used to be a disjointed, fragmented service sector has become a more cohesive and unified movement to provide much-needed learning and developmental support for children and youth, particularly those in under-served communities. What brought about this transformation besides the posse? Investment, information, and innovation.

Investment. Afterschool programs have long been supported by private philanthropy and parent fees, but 1997 was a watershed year: For the first time, the federal government established a funding stream dedicated solely to the support of afterschool programs. Starting small, with only about $1 million, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) initiative now provides over $1 billion to these programs, enabling over 1.6 million children and youth to attend them. Crucial to the expansion of these efforts over the years has been the fact that, even though funding from the federal government has increased, private funding has not waned. Today, major philanthropies such as the C.S. Mott Foundation, the Wallace Foundation, and the W.T. Grant Foundation, in addition to many local and regional nonprofit foundations, have invested millions of dollars to ensure that kids have access to high-quality afterschool programming that includes a wide variety of enrichment activities provided by qualified, caring adults.

Information. The past decade has also witnessed a remarkable uptick in research studies aimed at learning about the benefits of participation in afterschool programs and the conditions through which these benefits can be achieved. One only has to click into HFRP’s OST database, which I designed back in 2000, to view the hundreds of research and evaluation studies that profile successful programs and to examine the reasons for their success. And a quick trip to Google Scholar shows 86,000 articles on afterschool listed for 2012 alone, illustrating the tremendous amount of interest generated by the field. But in the past decade, one source of information about afterschool stood out above all others. The culmination of a two-year project, Community Programs to Promote Youth Development (2002)1 examined the design, implementation, and evaluation of community-based programs, drawing from the best available information at the time and setting the tone for future research and evaluation studies. In my estimation, this resource did more than any other to influence thinking about afterschool in terms of a positive developmental space for children and youth, rather than simply custodial care for working families. The publication identified eight research-based features of positive developmental settings, giving afterschool providers and researchers alike a common language to talk about their work, which was essential for building the field.

Innovation. Afterschool hours are ripe for innovation. Long viewed as an opportunity for both afterschool staff and teachers to experiment with different teaching styles, including project-based approaches to learning, successful afterschool programs continue to be characterized by hands-on, experientially-based learning. Research findings from the past decade underscore the powerful impact that this kind of teaching can have on a range of positive learning outcomes, including but not limited to academic achievement. Moving forward, we are seeing an increasingly wide array of academic subjects such as science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) included in afterschool programs. The afterschool space, already poised to deliver hands-on experiences, is a natural fit for supporting skills development in these areas.

Innovation has occurred not only at the program level but also at the city and state levels, with growing numbers of afterschool systems providing much-needed infrastructure support to help kids gain access to and participate in quality programming. While still a fairly new concept, these city and county afterschool initiatives have increased significantly over the past 10 years. Only recently, the Wallace Foundation commissioned the National League of Cities to prepare a 27-city report profiling promising examples of city-led efforts to build comprehensive afterschool systems2. As with afterschool programming in the last decade, these efforts are strengthened by an understanding of what contributes to successful programs. They also benefit from an investment in collaborations with organizations to provide technical assistance on key aspects of systems building, such as developing city-wide management information systems (MIS) and scaling program quality.

What Accounts for the Momentum?

Afterschool didn’t propel itself forward on its own—it had the help of visionary leadership in both the public and private sectors. At the risk of offending the many organizations and agencies that I am not able to mention in this brief space, I feel that there is one organization that must be named: the C. S. Mott Foundation, whose extraordinary leadership in supporting the implementation and evaluation of 21st CCLC I truly believe has been instrumental in the tremendous growth and success of the initiative. The foundation’s investments in a number of the premier research and capacity-building organizations, including HFRP, have ensured that afterschool programs nationwide, not just federally-funded programs, have access to and benefit from credible information to drive program improvements. The afterschool field has also benefited from the establishment of key organizations like the Afterschool Alliance and Statewide Afterschool Networks, which keep the pressure on decision makers to develop and implement effective afterschool policies. Perhaps most importantly, the afterschool field has survived, and in fact blossomed, because its knowledge investments have been put to work in order to improve program quality and create positive spaces for kids to grow and learn.

Family Engagement in Afterschool Programs

Six Strategies for Engaging Families
  1. Have adequate and welcoming space to engage families
  2. Establish policies and procedures to promote family engagement
  3. Communicate and build trusting relationships
  4. Be intentional about staff hiring and training to promote effective staff–family interactions
  5. Support families and their basic needs
  6. Connect families to each other, to the program staff, to schools, and to other community institutions

I would be remiss if I didn’t reflect on the role of families in afterschool programs. When I was at HFRP, the single most frequent technical assistance request that I received came from programs and intermediaries wanting to know how to do a better job of engaging families. My first response was always: “Widen your notion of family engagement.” Too often, engaging families was understood by afterschool providers as having families on site, at the program, but this practice is almost antithetical to afterschool, which is set up so that parents can continue to be at work after school hours. It is true that family engagement in afterschool can include family members’ direct involvement in activities that are implemented where afterschool programs are actually located. But, more importantly, encouraging family engagement also includes involving family members in a variety of additional activities and behaviors that happen outside of afterschool programs and are specifically geared toward influencing children’s development and learning within the program.

These activities are wide-ranging. Some are as simple as asking family members to ensure that their children get to the program. In other expressions of family engagement, families might help their children, particularly in middle and high school, make informed choices about programming; they might discuss their children’s progress with program staff; and, occasionally, they might participate in the programming themselves.

When programs adopt this broader view of engaging families, it is actually easier for them to develop engagement strategies that meet working families’ needs. And let me underscore the use of the plural strategies here. From research I worked on while I was at HFRP3, we learned that afterschool programs that are effective at sustaining participation over time use multiple family engagement strategies, understanding that engagement is not a one-size-fits-all strategy and that programs therefore need a lot of different engagement strategies on hand.

The Future of Afterschool

Looking ahead, I see big things on the horizon for afterschool programs. There has been much heated debate about the role of afterschool in mainstream education reform efforts—and several movements are underway that draw on afterschool to support a longer school day and school year. These and other crucial issues aside, as I reflect on a decade or more of field building, I am convinced that afterschool is more than just a promising education reform strategy—it is a fundamental strategy for lifelong success.

1. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. (2002). Community Programs to Promote Youth Development. Committee on Community-Level Programs for Youth. J. Eccles and J. Gootman, (Eds.) Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
2. National League of Cities. (2011). Municipal Leadership for Afterschool: Citywide Approaches Spreading Across the Country. Retrieved from
3. Deschenes, S. N., Arbreton, A., Little, P. M., Herrera, C., Baldwin Grossman, J., & Weiss, H.B., with Lee, D. (2010). Engaging older youth: Program and city-level strategies to support sustained participation in out-of-school time (Harvard Family Research Project and Public/Private Ventures). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project.

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

© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project