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After-school activities improve college access and save lives

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted on October 04, 2011.

Last Friday, I sat in a trailer at Madison Continuation High School, one of my field sites in South Los Angeles. Teachers and administrators in the district call the school an “emergency room.” “Once the students get to us,” said the principal,” they’re in desperate need of some love and care.”

In front of me was a thick binder with student schedules. For the past 15 minutes, I received bad news as the teacher’s assistant reported that student after student was absent. Mrs. Rainard, an all-purpose administrator, said, “Oh, I should have told you: A lot of students don’t come on Fridays. Who’s next on the list?”

“Alberto Morales,” I said.

“That boy is a pot-head. He’s also as old as water,” joked Mrs. Rainard.

A few minutes later, Alberto walked through the door. I met Alberto once before to explain my study. He was skeptical of me and in a daze. As I began the interview on Friday, however, he was friendly and lucid.

I asked Alberto, whose GPA was around 1.8, about college: “Oh yeah, I want to go to college. I take classes right now. Silk screening. I made this shirt.”

He excitedly took his backpack off to show me the back: a woman smoking a bong.

Over the next 30 minutes, he told me about his life. I heard stories about fights, tagging, and beefs with gangs: “My crew, we do graffiti,” he said. “Sometimes gangs get pissed when you tag in their spots.” Throughout the interview, Alberto never mentioned after-school activities like soccer, academic decathlon, or student government. Silk screening, as it turned out, was his only extracurricular. “I’ve been trying to make something of myself,” he admitted. “I don’t want to get in any more trouble with the cops.”

I’ve conducted nearly 30 interviews for my dissertation. I’ve met a lot of amazing young men. I count Alberto in that group. One fact, however, is alarmingly clear: after-school activities are critical to success for teenagers in low-income neighborhoods.

All students benefit from after-school activities. That’s true. But, all students don’t need after-school activities to keep them off the streets and save their lives. These young men do.

Across the country, reformers are creating extended-learning opportunities to keep young men engaged. Get students in early. Keep them late. Charter schools, for instance, often have longer school days. USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI) is another example. The pre-college program supplements the school day with classes before and after school.

Unfortunately, without external funding or the support of universities, such reforms are unlikely to occur in money-strapped urban school districts. After-school activities, however, offer a cheap alternative. Often, with at-risk students, administrators and teachers require less, not more, when the students begin acting out. For instance, they go from honors to general level classes. That’s wrong. At the moment students disengage, schools need to demand more. If we are serious about getting teenagers like Alberto to college, we need to offer more after-school activities and we need to make them part of their required coursework. Otherwise, we have no chance against, what Alberto called, “the pull of the streets.”