After-school programs are next education push

Progress on improving public education in New Mexico is off to a strong start thanks to the collaborative work of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Democratic-led Legislature.

The governor’s bold education moonshot delivered almost $500 million more in recurring funds for K-12 classrooms, including $113 million targeted to at-risk students living in poverty or speaking English as a second language. A healthy 6 percent across-the-board pay raise for educators should help ease the pressure of a teacher shortage in our schools that worsened unchecked through the Gov. Susana Martinez years. We also created a new Cabinet-level department to focus squarely on all aspects of early childhood education and childcare in the state, which has been lagging. The task for state policymakers is to allow these policies to take root, but also to consider the needs of children when they are not in school.

Now is the right time to put more support and investment into after-school learning, also known as Out-of-School Time informal education. There is ample and compelling evidence that it could help close the academic achievement gaps of our youngest learners. If New Mexico is going to transform our economy to support good jobs in science, technology, engineering and math in the future, we need well-educated adults. Firing the imagination of children before they are teenagers will be critical. Evidence shows that what happens outside of the classroom can be equally as important as what happens inside.

That is why I am partnering with the New Mexico Out-of-School Time Network to hold the Lt. Gov.’s Leadership Conference on Afterschool Learning on Oct. 22 in Albuquerque. We’ll bring together practitioners, educators, experts and advocates, legislators, business leaders, parents and students from across the state to find solutions and outline a path forward.

As a community, New Mexico would benefit by making a commitment to hard-working families that struggle to find a safe place for their children while they are at their jobs. Across our state, many thousands of kids are alone and unsupervised – or engaging in risky behaviors – between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. while parents are still at work. Quality after-school programs give parents peace of mind, providing a safe place for children to go when they are not in school, with supportive and structured educational activities under the careful eye of loving adults. They are frequently a lifeline for low-income parents’ continued employment.

After-school programs currently are offered in some of our public, private and charter schools, in faith-based centers and at local youth-focused centers like the Boys and Girls Clubs. Kids continue their learning at their own pace outside of the classroom, exploring interests that enrich children’s lives, from music, art and dance to sports, math, reading, theater and chess. They help children learn, grow and reach their full potential. At some of our state’s burgeoning community schools, they can even get a hot meal before going home.

After-school programs get positive results. Research shows that children in after-school programs attend school more often, get better grades and are more likely to graduate. They are less likely to use drugs or alcohol. After-school programs also improve students’ homework completion, class participation and class behavior.

New Mexico needs more high-quality after-school learning programs that keep children on track for high school, careers and productive lives. A recent mapping project reveals that rural areas with high poverty and high juvenile justice referral rates are lacking after-school programs, including Roswell, Alamogordo and Las Vegas. The truth is that there are not nearly enough after-school programs available across the state to meet the need of communities and families.

We can’t expect help from Washington. The president’s 2020 budget called for eliminating all federal funding for local after-school programs. The U.S. House of Representatives, thank goodness, rejected that proposal and instead passed an increase to allow 100,000 more children to access after-school learning programs nationwide. But gridlock rules the day.

Policymakers at the state and local level must do everything possible to protect and increase funding for after-school programs, which is an essential component for N.M.’s children’s chance at a fair and equitable education and a brighter future.

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