A preschooler at Father Joe’s Villages’ Therapeutic Childcare Center / Photo by Megan Wood

This post originally appeared in Voice of San Diego’s yearly publication, A Parent’s Guide to Public Schools. See the full guide, including an interactive map and countywide school data, here.

Lee este artículo en español aquí.

For parents, the start of the school year may be both exciting and overwhelming. There’s the joy of the first day of school, a new grade and phase of childhood and getting back into a routine after summer. But there’s also the frustration of figuring out multiple schedules, drop-offs, pick-ups and extracurricular activities. 


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Too many parents, though, start the year with one major concern: What will the kids do for the two or three hours after school, before the workday is over?

Planning for after-school care is an important part of getting ready for the beginning of the school year. It can take time, and many programs require applications to be submitted in the spring, months before the start of the next school year.

After-school programs vary from county to county and from school to school. They are housed in schools, recreation centers, community and neighborhood centers, churches, synagogues and libraries. They go by different names like Expanded Learning, Extended Day Program or Before-and-After School Care.

Some organizations use the term “Out-of-School Time,” or use names like 21st Century and ASES, referring to the type of funding the program receives.

But here’s the important part for parents to remember: Due to budget planning and available funding, most programs have a limit as to how many children they can enroll each school year. If they hit that limit, and you’re not signed up, there’s a very real chance you will not have after-school care options in the first few weeks of a school year – and that can be very hard for working parents to navigate.

The Two Main Types of Programs

State-funded: State-funded programs are free, but they require an application that can take several months to process. For many San Diego county districts, this occurs during or around the month of March. Applications must be submitted during the application window in the spring in order to qualify for programs the following school year.

Free programs receive federal funding through 21st Century Community Learning Center (sometimes called 21st CCLC) block grants and state funding through After School Education and Safety (ASES) grants. High school programs are funded through 21st CCLC grants referred to as After School Safety and Enrichment for Teens, or ASSETS. Funding is available to school districts and community-based organizations that provide academic and social support for students and families in underserved areas, traditionally those with low-performing schools and high levels of poverty. 

Programs you pay for: These are two-day, three-day or five-day options for parents who may not require a full week of after-school care. Character Builders, run by the YMCA, and Klassic Kids, run by Harmonium, are two popular programs available in San Diego County schools. Some programs have an academic focus while others have a focus around drama, art or sports. Programs may offer specialized curricula in STEM or STEAM, youth empowerment or civics. 

Both the YMCA and Harmonium provide state-funded Prime Time programs in schools as well as fee-based programs Character Builders and Klassic Kids, respectively. School sites may have one or both types of programs. Another community-based organization providing Prime Time and other fee-based programs in San Diego County schools is SAY San Diego. Other community-based organizations, like the Boys & Girls Clubs, offer fee-based programs and may offer transportation for students. Other examples of fee-based programs include 4-H of San Diego County, offered through the University of California, the National Association of Police Athletic/Activities Leagues and Girls, Inc.

Even though you pay for these programs, it doesn’t mean space is available. To check the availability of spaces in a program, call the school and ask to speak with someone in the after-school program. The staff at each school will have the most updated enrollment information. If they do not have a before- and after-school program, sometimes called a “6-to-6 program,” ask if they offer other types of after-school programs on site. 

Afterschool Alliance is a nationwide organization focusing on advocacy, research, capacity-building and policy. It recommends looking for programs “tailored to meet students’ different academic, physical, and social-emotional needs.” A second-grader has different needs than a seventh-grader, who may be more engaged in a program that includes coding and robotics than one with more structured academic support. Different sites like theconnectory.org and afterschoolalliance.org can help parents find programs in their neighborhoods. 

OK, Here’s a Checklist on What to Do

  • Figure out what days you need after-school care. This is important because it often determines the type of program you’ll want to look for.
  • Start with your child’s school. Ask the office staff or principal about the different programs offered on-site. 
  • If you need a 6-to-6 type program, many schools have free programs that operate on-site. They typically require an income verification and attendance guarantee. The school may offer a fee-based 6-to-6 program, many of which offer two, three- or five-day program options. 
  • If there is no 6-to-6 program available, many offer different fee-based programs throughout the year like chess, foreign language, art, acting or sports. These programs often have sessions that run six to eight weeks long and are only offered one or two days a week. 
  • Depending on your need, local libraries, museums and recreation centers may also offer single or multiple-day programs. Many have options like drop-in rates, flexible hours and low monthly fees. Check their websites for locations and availability. 

For younger children in kindergarten, look for programs that allow students to ask questions and think critically, ones that let students use their imaginations and allow them to experience different cultures and new technologies. Popular programs include those that are structured and offer tutoring, teach responsibility, provide outside experiences and include games as well as programs that include dance and music. 

For middle school-aged children, look for programs that will keep them active and entertained, as well as programs that give them a chance to engage with adults, connect with other pre-teens and teens through games, and teach life skills. Popular programs include STEM, outdoor adventures like surfing or hiking. 

What makes a good program?

The California Afterschool Network, a statewide organization providing professional development, advocacy and resources for parents and programs, released its quality standards for expanded learning programs in 2014 (you can find them online at http://www.afterschoolnetwork.org). Quality programs offer safe and supportive environments for students, as well as active and engaging learning and skill-building. A good program offers the opportunity for youth voice and leadership and promotes healthy choices and behaviors while creating an environment that embraces diversity, access and equity. 

When it comes to evaluating the organization running these programs, look for organizations with a clear vision, mission and purpose. Good programs have quality staff with low staff turnover and offer staff opportunities for intentional, continuous quality improvement, like conference attendance, professional development and training. Look for programs with collaborative partnerships with families, schools and other community organizations. Lastly, a quality program can demonstrate good program management and sustainability. This information is available on the website of each organization providing programs.

Regardless of the different type of program, state-funded or fee-based, STEM-focused or drama, the research is the same. After-school programs improve academic achievement, provide opportunities for students to engage in safe, healthy activities and have been shown to have a positive effect on regular school day attendance. Student engagement in after-school programs leads to an increase in healthy habits and choices and helps to close the access, opportunity and achievement gaps. 

Suzy Reid is a parent, education advocate and writer in San Diego. She chaired a districtwide parent advisory council for San Diego Unified and is an advocate for her community of schools.

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