Study: Reading youth looking for more to do out of school

Many students spending a lot of time at home

READING, Pa. - Where are the youth of Reading spending their free time? A recent study – "Afterschool and Summer Programs in Reading, Pennsylvania: A Supply and Demand Analysis" – answered that question and so much more.

Many people who attended the presentation of the study's results at the DoubleTree Hotel in center city Wednesday morning said they weren't surprised by a lot of what they heard.

The study found that participation in out-of-school time (OST) programs in Reading is below national and state averages. It found that many students are spending a lot of time at home during the summer months, doing nothing, and that those students are frustrated and want to do more. The most significant barrier to providing more programs, however, is funding.

Heidi Williamson, Berks County Community Foundation's vice president for programs and initiatives, said what many educators already know: high-quality OST programs contribute to academic gains and social and emotional development and help close the "opportunity gap" many children living in high-poverty communities like Reading face.

Only 11 percent of Reading's youth participate in afterschool programs, compared to 18 percent nationally and 17 percent in Pennsylvania. The difference in summer program participation is even more significant: only 21 percent in Reading compared to 33 percent nationwide.

The study also found that the supply of OST programming in Reading is not meeting the demand. Two-thirds of all survey respondents in focus groups said they would like additional opportunities.

Approximately 40 percent of parents who responded said their children spent the entire 2017 summer break at home, and 70 percent said their children spent five weeks or more at home.

Providers reported that funding is the most significant barrier to providing more programs, but even if more programs were offered, families shared many obstacles to accessing the programs, including hours, lack of transportation, language and cultural difference, cost, and most frequently - a lack of knowledge about program availability.

Representatives from FourPoint Education Partners conducted and presented the results of the study and provided several recommendations:

  1. Create a network of providers and community leaders to support a system of OST programming in Reading.
  2. Inform and empower youth and families to select and participate in OST programs that meet their interests and needs.
  3. Develop and pilot comprehensive OST models at elementary and secondary levels.
  4. Work with state and local officials to secure resources for more and better OST options for children and teens in Reading.

The presenters also provided a framework for bringing community resources together to improve youth outcomes and cited St. Paul, Minnesota, which also has a large number of immigrant families, as a comparable city to model Reading's youth programs after. They said it took the city 15 years to slowly improve its youth programs and that the support of its mayor was key.

"The bottom line is really this: We have a better picture of our afterschool and summer options in the community, and there's a tremendous opportunity to engage more children and teens in programs that can help them with school work, engage them in arts and sciences, and even connect them to jobs that need to be done in the community. There's no shortage of kids or opportunities," Williamson said.

She added that there's no silver bullet and that it will take time and coordination and a greater financial investment than any one single organization can provide.

"I think it's exciting to see so many different organizations and providers working together to make a system that will be more accessible to everyone who needs it," said Stephanie Giles, executive director at Lifeline of Berks County.

The study was commissioned by the foundation and conducted by FourPoint Education Partners and was paid for with a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The data was collected by interviewing stakeholders and providers, collecting provider program data, surveying parents, and holding focus groups with parents and students.

The purpose of the study, which focused K-12th graders, was to inform state and local policymakers about the availability of out-of-school time (OST) programs in Reading and how well they match the needs and preferences of families and students and to enable the Reading community to better coordinate its OST resources.

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