Excruciating heat aside, at this point in the summer parents across the East Valley are turning their attention to the rapidly approaching school year — despite their kids’ best efforts to stop, or at least slow down, the clock.

In addition to the “to-dos” involving new clothes and school supplies, preparing for the school year also means determining the best and most productive use of the hours a child spends out of the classroom.

Research consistently shows that quality after-school programs result in improved school attendance, higher academic achievement in reading and math, increased levels of student engagement and motivation to learn, higher self-esteem, reduced delinquency and greater likelihood of high school graduation.

Quality after-school programs reaffirm what is taught in school by exposing children to experiential learning and areas of interest not necessarily possible in the daily classroom environment.

At the same time, the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center reports that 49 percent of children not in after-school programs are more likely to use drugs and 37 percent are more likely to become teen parents.

Beyond the safety factor, which is significant in its own right, after-school programs are a logical, strategic and vital extension of in-school education that support learning, academic achievement and personal growth and development.

Nine out of 10 Americans believe all youth should have access to after-school programs, but two-thirds say they have trouble finding local programs.

One resource available to Arizona parents, children and families is the state’s first comprehensive, web-based, bilingual directory of after-school and out-of-school programs. The Arizona Afterschool Directory — developed, organized and managed by the Arizona Center for Afterschool Excellence (www.azafterschool.org) in partnership with the Valley of the Sun United Way — includes consistently updated information about hundreds of diverse after-school programs.

The directory lets parents search for programs by curriculum (educational focus, arts, sports, science, technology, life skills, socialization, special needs, tutoring, mentoring, homework assistance, etc.), location, type (before school, after school, weekend, summer break or school vacation), cost (free, fixed fees, sliding scale, available financing options, DES subsidy, multiple-child discount, etc.); and language (English only, Spanish only, multi-lingual), among other information.

Another important tool for parents and children — who certainly should be involved in the decision-making process — is to know the right questions to ask after-school program managers, administrators and providers.

Questions should provide insight into the overall program itself, the physical space and facility, social and emotional development goals and strategies, academic enrichment tactics and the program and administrative staff.

While most programs charge a fee, there are scholarships available that are not widely publicized. If you cannot afford your program of choice, don’t hesitate to ask about the availability of scholarships.

Among other important questions:

• What is the program’s mission and philosophy, and is the program licensed?

• What is the program fee and is financial assistance available?

• Does the program serve children with special needs?

• Is there adequate space and materials for a variety of activities?

• Are there quiet spaces for reading, homework and when a child may want to be away from the larger group?

• Do children and parents have a role in planning program activities, content and schedule?

• Are children encouraged to try new activities and build new skills that may be unfamiliar to them?

• How are children encouraged to resolve differences among themselves?

• Does the program provide a rich, informal learning atmosphere that expands on and reinforces concepts learned in the classroom?

• Is homework assistance provided?

• Is technology available and what meaningful role does it play beyond the playing of video games?

• Is consistent, meaningful feedback provided to parents about a child’s growth and development?

Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions. After all, these are critically important hours for your child that may impact not only their success in school, but help frame their lives as adults.

A complete Quality Afterschool Program Check List, as well as the Arizona Afterschool Directory, is available at www.azafterschool.org.

• Melanie McClintock is executive director of the Arizona Center for Afterschool Excellence.

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