Learning doesn’t end when the bell rings. Support quality after-school programs.

As teachers and families know, learning doesn’t stop when the last bell rings on a child’s school day. After-school time – in fact, any time outside the school walls – offers great opportunities for children to experience activities that will expand their academic, cultural and recreational horizons.

The key is community-driven, affordable, quality after-school programs that help students, families and employers by keeping kids safe, inspiring learning and helping parents stay employed. We must think bigger and beyond the end of the school day, just Monday through Friday. These programs can occur after school hours, during the evening, on weekends, summer break or holidays. They can provide academic support, arts and cultural enrichment, workforce development, recreation and nutrition and health services.

The majority of our schools have after school care options from local providers for grades K – 5; offering homework help, a healthy snack, with access to computers, library time, and recreational play in and outdoors. Often times these programs employ teachers or students preparing for careers in education or youth development. This extra-curricular time fosters meaningful relationships in settings beyond the classroom.

BMW Academy, Inc. in Lexington offers enrichment on Saturdays for all males enrolled in their program. Both of my sons are enrolled, and my oldest has maintained enrollment since third grade. Now, as a high school sophomore, he has traveled to numerous college campuses for visits, has the opportunity for tutoring, ACT Prep, etiquette, exposure to high level academic experiences and other essential life skills with his peers.

Why are quality after-school programs important? Research shows there are a number of reasons:

•They help improve student achievement in reading and math and narrow achievement gaps between high- and low-income students.

•They improve overall school attendance, reduce chronic absenteeism and reduce dropout rates.

•They improve students’ classroom engagement and interest in learning while decreasing disciplinary incidents.

•Quality programs also have a good return on investment. Again, the research bears this out. For every $1 invested, there is a return of $3 through increased earning potential, improved student academic performance and reduced crime and juvenile delinquency

On the workforce front, such programs help parents stay employed by providing needed support after school. Research shows parents lose eight days of work, and businesses lose $300 billion a year, when kids have no after-school opportunities.

And support for quality programs is strong among Kentucky parents; 60 percent report the programs help engage their children in learning, and 73 percent say the programs help them stay employed.

This year, the federal 21st Century Community Learning Center program – sometimes called 21C – provided $17.9 million to help Kentucky school districts and partners in 177 communities provide after-school services. The program is the only federal funding source dedicated exclusively to supporting after-school, before-school and summer learning programs.

The funding helps provide programs for kids in 177 Kentucky communities. But demand is so strong that seven out of 10 program applications are unfunded. (More than 104,000 K-12 students are enrolled in some type of after-school program, but more than 265,000 are waiting for an available program.)

Clearly, the 21C funding is critical to maintaining high quality after-school programs for children in Kentucky and across the country. Please join me in making sure our members of Congress are aware of the value this program delivers in expanding our children’s educational opportunities and, as a result, building a stronger future for our state and nation.

Andria H. Jackson of Lexington is an Education Trust Family Fellow, mother of two awesome boys & avid parent leadership advocate.