6 questions to ask when choosing an after-school program

Who doesn't love a dance class? (The Children's Trust.)

While kids are usually enjoying themselves around this time of year, reveling in the distractions of summer, this year is different. Or hadn’t you noticed? Back to school has never been bigger.

Chances are that children will be anxiously awaiting a return to regular schooling -- if they haven’t been back already -- and to the lives they once knew before the coronavirus pandemic.

There’s a lot to do before then, but one thing you’ll want to start prepping for now is after-school programming.

Much of the focus will be on a return to the classroom, but what’s just as important for a large portion of the population is the support structure and learning environment that’s provided by after-school programs.

Here are six questions to ask when choosing an after-school program, many of which are funded in Miami-Dade County by The Children’s Trust:

  1. What is the age range and percentage of children who are the same age as your child at the after-school program?
  2. What is the background in education, child development or learning and attention issues of the staff?
  3. How do staff handle discipline issues?
  4. What activities are offered and are children encouraged to try new activities?
  5. What are the hours of the program?
  6. How much attention will there be on homework and other learning activities?

Across the country, after-school programs were devastated by the onset of the pandemic. Between enrollment limitations and added costs to deal with pandemic precautions, many were forced to deny children access, particularly from low-income families with little or no options for child care.

According to a survey conducted by the national nonprofit Afterschool Alliance, the number of students with access to after-school programs was slashed by about half since the pandemic began.

Fortunately, in Miami-Dade, The Trust committed to funding and supporting its after-school providers during the pandemic. Initially, when COVID-19 first showed up, the programming was done mostly through virtual after-school programs, but increasingly through in-person programs, Last year, more than 330 after-school providers continued to offer programming, and the number will be even higher this year.

“We are approaching uncharted waters with this year’s back-to-school preparations,” said The Trust’s Assistant Director of Programs Rachel Spector. “The benefits of quality after-school programming are numerous. From academics (and) social development to mental health, after-school programs not only help in the growth of our children but keep them engaged in positive activities instead of doing something they shouldn’t.”

Barbara Cesar, the director of education at Centro Campesino, which provides after-school programs for kindergarten through fifth grade at two sites in Florida City, said this year’s return to school and after-school will be challenging but welcome.

“Seeing the smiling faces as they return to our after-school programs is something heartwarming to look forward to,” Cesar said. “We already know from the summer that they have so much to share and talk about -- they have been so enthusiastic.”

During the early part of the pandemic, Centro Campesino offered virtual after-school programming, but Cesar said there is a big difference between the support that can be given to children in person and online.

“In the online world, it’s hard to develop the same rapport with children, the praise you can give in person. They are yearning for that positive praise and recognition,” she said.

Cesar said she is hopeful that with social distancing guidelines being adjusted, Centro Campesino can welcome back even more kids. Still, she said that the programs would abide by all Center for Disease Control and Prevention and local guidelines regarding the pandemic.

Bevone Ritchie, associate director of Programs at The Trust, reminded parents that after-school programs are also safe outlets for older youth to speak with each other about what’s happening in their community and around the world and put their thoughts to productive use.

“After-school programs that serve middle or high school students are a great place for students to express themselves, through activities such as dance, sports, music, spoken word, film production and more. They have a voice,” Ritchie said. “Because there is so much going on, having this additional outlet and support is a great resource for healthy development and their well-being.

While Trust-funded after-school programs will all be in person for the upcoming school year, it is important for children to continue using the social distancing and hygiene habits they learned during the pandemic. The Trust requires all of its funded providers to abide by all CDC, state and local guidelines regarding pandemic requirements.

To find a suitable after-school program for your child, visit www.thechildrenstrust.org/after-school for a list or interactive map of K-5 and 6-12 after-school programs.