American Journal of Community Psychology

, Volume 45, Issue 3, pp 430–440

The After-School Needs and Resources of a Low-Income Urban Community: Surveying Youth and Parents for Community Change


    • Loyola University Chicago
  • Maryse H. Richards
    • Loyola University Chicago
Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s10464-010-9309-x

Cite this article as:
Cornelli Sanderson, R. & Richards, M.H. Am J Community Psychol (2010) 45: 430. doi:10.1007/s10464-010-9309-x


Using a collaborative research approach, this project describes a partnership between community residents and university researchers to develop a comprehensive survey of the after-school needs of a low-income urban community in a large Midwestern city. Surveying parents and children was considered particularly important because the current literature on after-school does not include much input from them, the key stakeholders in programming. By surveying pre- and young adolescent youth (N = 416) and parents (N = 225) in the community, information was gathered to document the need for after-school programming, tap program preferences, and uncover barriers to participation and enrollment. Survey findings revealed significant differences between youth and parent perspectives. Disagreements between youth and parent survey responses suggest that after-school programs in the community should offer a balance of academic, recreational, and social activities, as well as a tutoring or homework component. Further, in order to increase participation and attendance rates, community after-school programs need to address the following barriers to participation: safety, transportation, family responsibilities (e.g., care for siblings, household chores), and access to information about available programs. These findings guided the planning of future after-school programs. The survey results and comparisons between youth and parent data will be presented.


Collaborative researchAfter-school programsUrban communitiesParent surveyYouth survey


The potential benefits of after-school program involvement are well-documented (Posner and Vandell 1999; Scott-Little et al. 2002; Mahoney et al. 2005; Frazier et al. 2007; Mahoney et al. 2007). However, children can only reap the benefits of enrichment and prosocial programming if they actually attend. Unfortunately, low attendance rates are widely reported in the after-school literature (Halpern 1999; Larner et al. 1999; US Department of Education 2003). Enrollment rates similarly do not match estimated rates of demand for after-school programming. In a survey of 94 cities, only 35% of children in need of after-school care were actually enrolled in an after-school program (US Conference of Mayors 2003). Low attendance and enrollment rates imply that certain aspects (e.g., activities, location, program hours) of the programs offered do not appeal to youth and their families. What prevents youth from attending programs more often? What stops students from participating in the first place?

Identifying the barriers to after-school participation requires significant input from youth and their parents. After-school programs that offer the types of programming desired by youth and also alleviate potential obstacles to enrollment (such as cost, transportation, and timing) will inevitably boast higher enrollment and attendance rates (Halpern 1999; Larner et al. 1999). While some barriers to participation may be captured in broader, population-based surveys, many obstacles to enrollment, attendance, and engagement are more accurately assessed at the community-level. Focused on better understanding and tackling issues affecting the community, community-based collaborative research is well-poised to address topics with direct local implications, such as after-school programming (McElhaney and Effley 1999). Community-based collaborative research refers to an approach to research characterized by the equitable partnership of researchers and community members in every phase of the project (Potvin et al. 2003). Explicit purposes of the research are to benefit the community by adding to the community’s knowledge base and by catalyzing community change (Metzler et al. 2003).

The main focus of this paper is to describe the results of a survey that emerged from the collaborative partnership of university and community members committed to augmenting after-school resources for youth in a low-income urban community. In order to assess community needs for after-school programming and to guide future funding initiatives, a survey for youth and parents was developed, distributed, and survey data were analyzed. To our knowledge, the results of a community-based, collaborative assessment of after-school resources have not been presented in the literature. This paper will present the key survey results, in particular highlighting discrepancies between youth and parent responses.

Overcoming Barriers: How to Increase Youth Engagement

Preliminary research suggests that low attendance rates can attenuate the effect of after-school programming on participant outcomes (Harvard Family Research Project [HFRP] 2004). The Harvard Family Research Project maintains a database of out-of-school program evaluations in order to develop strategies to attract and sustain youth participation. Using data from several impact and implementation evaluations in the database, the HFRP review found that greater frequency of participation was linked to higher school attendance rates and measures of school achievement and lower rates of school failure (HFRP 2004). In contrast, the 21st Century Learning Centers (21st CCLC) evaluation did not find significantly better outcomes overall for ‘frequent’ versus ‘moderate’ attenders (US Department of Education 2003). However, this result may have been due to other factors such as quality of programming and program maturity; many of the 21st CCLC programs were evaluated after the first 1 or 2 years of operation, before the centers were able to fully implement the programs as intended (Mahoney and Zigler 2006). Because frequency of participation can affect the benefits of after-school programming, it is essential to identify factors that underlie decreased after-school program attendance.

Utilization rates often do not reflect demand rates because numerous logistical barriers, such as cost and transportation, may prevent children from enrolling even though they are in need of after-school care (Larner et al. 1999). In a review of barriers and incentives to participation in out-of-school programs, HFRP (2004) listed some of the most common barriers for K-12 students as boredom or disinterest, family responsibilities, transportation and safety, and a desire to “hang out” with friends. Further, Bouffard et al. (2006) reported that children from low-income families were less likely to participate in out-of-school time programs and if they did participate in a program, they attended less frequently than their middle-class counterparts.

The parental role in negotiating barriers to participation is also important to consider. However, to our knowledge, few researchers have systematically documented youth and parent preferences and perceived barriers regarding after-school activity at the community-level. One notable exception is the work of Goerge et al. (2006) who conducted a broad-based survey of Chicago high-school students regarding their use of out-of-school time. The current study will add to this literature by focusing on children in early adolescence, between 9 and 14 years of age. The following barriers outlined below are of particular relevance to youth and parents in the target community.

In a study of attrition from after-school programs, Weisman and Gottfredson (2001) found that one-third of students initially registered for a program dropped out because they found the program to be “boring.” The Harvard Family Research Project’s conceptual model of out-of-school participation posits that in addition to enrollment and attendance, youth engagement is a necessary component of participation (Weiss et al. 2005). Engagement, defined as both the motivation to participate and active cognitive and social involvement, is key to a child’s successful experience in after-school programming (Weiss et al. 2005). The 21st CCLC evaluation found that 42.2% of middle school “non-participants” did not enroll in after-school programs because they did not offer the kinds of activities that they were interested in (US Department of Education 2003). For young adolescents in particular, peers may also exert significant influence on decisions to participate in out-of-school activities. In the 21st CCLC evaluation, 65% of non-participants reported that they preferred to “hang out” after-school rather than attending a structured program (US Department of Education 2003). The opportunity to spend time with friends may also affect a student’s decision to join a particular after-school activity. Goerge and Chaskin (2004) found that 20% of students surveyed spend time in structured activities in order “to be with friends.” It is clear that voluntary after-school programs must offer activities that cater to the interests and motivations of target students if they are going to maintain decent attendance rates and a high level of engagement. Our survey addressed this issue by directly inquiring about youth and parent preferences for after-school programming.

Whereas issues of boredom and peer influence may be relevant for children across socioeconomic groups, issues related to safe transportation and family responsibilities are particularly salient for families in low-income urban communities. Transportation to and from an after-school program can be problematic depending on the location of the program. Even school-based after-school programs can raise transportation problems if participating students do not live in the same community as their school or if they must walk home from school when the programs ends, at which point the streets may be dark and unsafe. One-fifth of non-participants evaluated in the programs included in the HFRP review reported transportation as a reason they were unable to participate (HFRP 2004). In the 21st CCLC evaluation, 46% of non-participants reported that they would attend the program if “it was easier to get a ride home” (US Department of Education 2003). If programs do not provide transportation in order to ensure that children travel safely to and from after-school programming, many children interested in participating will not be able to attend. Due to a high rate of gang violence in the target community, safe transportation to and from after-school programs was a high priority amongst community residents.

Children in elementary and middle school often have family responsibilities after-school that may preclude their participation in after-school programs. At least 20% of non-participants (across several evaluations) reported that family responsibilities interfered with their participation in after-school programs (HFRP 2004). In a survey of Chicago 9th graders, one-third of students reported that they supervise younger siblings or other children after-school (Goerge and Chaskin 2004). Programs that only target older children may lose participants who must secure care for their younger siblings as well.

Of course, youth are not the only end-users whose opinions must be considered. Barriers to parental involvement are particularly important to understand because in many cases, parents are still the gatekeepers to their child’s extracurricular life in early adolescence (Outley and Floyd 2002). Parents’ behavior is a strong positive predictor of children’s participation in after-school activities (Simpkins et al. 2005). Children are significantly more likely to participate in certain after-school activities when parents encourage, provide materials for, or become directly involved in that activity (Simpkins et al. 2005). Parents seek programs that are goal-oriented, focus on ‘worthwhile’ enrichment activities, and provide positive role models (Outley and Floyd 2002). In low-income communities, such resource-seeking strategies help parents to mediate the harmful effects of poverty and community violence on their children’s development (Jarrett 1999). Therefore, in addition to youth perspectives, parent perspectives on program offerings need to be understood and incorporated into program development.

Soliciting Feedback from the Key Stakeholders in Community

Barriers to participation may be present across communities but will manifest differently in each individual community based on geographic, cultural, socio-economic, and logistical specifics. In order to identify after-school solutions that might remedy low participation rates, researchers recommend including children and families in the planning of after-school programming so that the activities can more accurately reflect the children’s preferences (Fashola 1998; Halpern 1999; Larner et al. 1999). Careful efforts to understand community needs and obstacles inherent to the structure of the community, its programs, and its members will provide locally relevant solutions. For the development of more efficacious programming, Larner et al. (1999) recommends the documentation of the supply of and demand for after-school programming, as well as an investigation of cost, transportation concerns, child age, and child preferences in the community.

In the target community, the local schools were generally under-resourced, with little funding available for the extension of their current after-school programming efforts. At the time of this project, school-based after-school programs ran only from October to March because of funding shortages. Unfortunately, the spring term was prime time for gang recruitment, leaving middle school students vulnerable to these neighborhood pressures. Juvenile violent crime rates in the community peaked during after-school hours, making late afternoon a particularly difficult time for community youth. According to FBI statistics, 47% of juvenile violent crime occurs on weekdays between 2 pm and 8 pm (Fox and Newman 1998). The time immediately after school can be particularly risky, especially if the child is not in the care of an adult (Gottfredson et al. 2001). The schools in the community had recently acquired permits to stay open to students during out-of-school hours. However, the schools still required funding, staff, and programming in order to offer an accessible and safe space after-school.

Therefore, the goals of the surveys were to (1) document the need for after-school programming and uncover desired program types, (2) identify barriers to participation in already-existing programs, (3) share recommendations with schools to increase attendance and effectiveness, and (4) create guidelines for future programming to reflect the needs and desires of community families. Surveying parents and children was considered particularly important because the current literature on after-school does not include much input from the key stakeholders in programming.


In the winter of 2003, an advisory board comprised of community activists, representatives from multiple community-based organizations (CBOs), and school personnel from an urban community in a large Midwestern city, as well as university-based researchers, convened to discuss the deleterious effects of community violence on local youth. The advisory board evolved into a partnership (Safe Kids) that determined that the enhancement of after-school programming in the community was one effective way to reduce violence exposure amongst community youth. Therefore, the group decided, as a first step, to survey community youth and parents in order to assess the after-school preferences of key stakeholders. Each phase of the survey’s development, distribution, interpretation, and results-reporting, was achieved through a collaborative process involving both university and community members.

It was our intention to design a survey that could paint a comprehensive picture of out-of-school concerns for local youth and their parents. The survey for youth investigated four areas of interest: (a) Perceived need and resources: What are the specific out-of-school needs of community youth and their parents? (b) Preferred program characteristics: What do children and parents require and expect from out-of-school programs? How would they describe the ‘ideal’ after-school program? (c) Barriers and access to participation: What barriers may impede a child’s participation or a parent’s willingness to enroll their child in a particular program? (d) Parent versus youth perspectives: How do parents and children differ regarding their perceptions of need and expectations for out-of-school programming, the safety concerns associated with participation, and the barriers to participation? Though beyond the scope of this paper, other group differences were also analyzed.

Survey Participants


This work took place in one of 77 defined communities within a large Midwestern city. The community has a population of almost 120,000 individuals (US Census Bureau 2000). The demographic breakdown reveals a population that is 90.2% Black or African American, 6.2% White, and 8.2% Hispanic (US Census Bureau 2000). The community boasts several Christian churches that provide social services and numerous community-based organizations (CBOs). In 2004, three of the elementary schools in the community had after-school programs funded by the Twenty-First Century Community Learning Centers, a federally funded after-school initiative. In addition, schools and several CBOs offer a variety of extracurricular activities. Staffed by dedicated members of the community, CBOs are often the catalysts for community organization, advocacy, and change. The commitment of CBOs made the university-community partnership possible, and the perseverance of community members directly resulted in real community changes after the surveys had been analyzed.

Defined as a low-income urban neighborhood, 25% of households in the community reported incomes less than $15,000 per annum and 18.3% of households reported incomes of less than $10,000 (US Census Bureau 2000). In 2003, the community had the highest number of homicides in the large Midwestern city where it is located (Huppke and Heinzmann 2004). The community’s violent crime rates are over twice the city average (Chicago Police Department 2006). In 2006, the violent crime rate for the community was 1975 per 100,000 residents. According to both the community partners and the young members of a youth advisory board convened to discuss the issue of community violence and its impact on youth, gangs had marked out territory reflecting individual neighborhoods, making it unsafe for children to traverse gang boundaries.


Three public schools geographically spread across the community participated in the survey. The schools were recommended by community partners because they each represented a different neighborhood within the community. Because of a salient lack of after-school resources for the pre- and young adolescents in the community, and that age group’s vulnerability regarding early onset of delinquency and crime, the surveys targeted children in 4th through 8th grade and their parents. Community partners stated that local youth as young as nine were exposed to multiple risks, often responsible for self-care or the care of younger siblings after-school, and already beginning to engage in risky behaviors. Further, this age group was not covered by Goerge et al. (2006) evaluation of after-school time during high school. A survey of early adolescents may provide significantly different results from a survey of high school-age students.

In order to capture youth between the ages of 9 and 14, students from the 4th, 6th, and 8th grades were recruited to participate. Though approximately 700 students were enrolled at the three schools in those three grades, four hundred and sixteen youth completed the youth survey (School A N = 118, School B N = 108, and School C N = 190). Students who were not in attendance on the survey day and classrooms that were off-site for a field trip did not participate in the survey. Though attrition rates were not formally recorded, a small group of children (approximately 2.0%) in classrooms recruited for the survey declined to participate.

The survey was balanced for gender (44.2% = boys and 51.2% = girls). Another 19 respondents (4.6%) did not list their gender. Participating children ranged in age from 9 to 14 (M = 11.65, SD = 1.66). Three grades were surveyed: 39.9% of participants were in the 4th grade, 31.4% were in the 6th grade, and 28.4% were in the 8th grade. Participating schools were 98.0% African American, 1.9% Hispanic, and 0.1% European American, and 93.0% of students at the three schools were defined as low-income (denoted by the Chicago Public Schools as receiving public aid or being eligible for free or reduced price lunches; Illinois State Department of Education 2003). The demographics of the three schools mirror the race, ethnicity, and income composition of the larger community. Students in all fourth, sixth, and eighth grade classrooms in the three participating schools were asked to participate.


Parents of children between the ages of 9 and 14 were recruited to complete the survey. Parents were loosely defined to include grandparents who are primary caregivers and guardians. Two hundred and twenty-five parents from four schools participated in the parent survey (School A N = 54; School B N = 55; School C N = 57; and School D N = 59). Because School D did not participate in the youth survey, it was excluded from analyses that compared youth and parent data. As expected, more female caregivers (80.9%) responded to the survey than male caregivers (15.1%). Nine parents (4.0%) did not indicate their gender. Participating parents reported child’s gender as follows: 47.6% had daughters, 40.4% had sons, and 10.7% listed both genders. Of the parents who responded, 50.7% led a single-parent household and 32.4% lived in a household with two adults (16.9% of participants did not respond to the question regarding the number of adults in the household).

Demographic information regarding the ethnicity and SES of parents mirrored the demographic information provided for the youth sample. It is important to note that parents and youth were anonymously surveyed independently from one another. Therefore the findings aggregate youth survey responses and parent survey responses in order to make between-group comparisons. Only a small percentage of parents at each school chose to participate in the survey.


Youth Survey

Children in the three participating schools were asked to complete the youth survey during the school day. Classroom teachers were asked to designate 20 min of 1 day for survey completion. Community and university partners introduced the purpose of the survey and provided instructions for completing it to the students. The survey was read aloud to 4th graders to ensure that level of literacy did not prevent a child from participating. Because no identifying or sensitive information was asked for in the survey, consent forms were not required. This approach helped to maximize the number of students able to participate.

Parent Survey

District schools host Report Card Pickup Day on the same date across the city to provide an opportunity for parents to meet with teachers (and also to retrieve student report cards). Parents attending Report Card Pickup Day were recruited to complete the survey. Because the community currently boasts an 80% attendance rate at Report Card Pickup Day, this was considered one of the best ways to obtain the consent of most eligible parents. Report Card Pickup Day runs from 12 pm to 6 pm in order to accommodate a variety of work schedules. Therefore, the 20% of parents who do not attend Report Card Pickup Day may over-represent parents who are less involved at their children’s school or who work from 12 pm to 6 pm. Surveys were distributed by a team of university undergraduates (as part of a ‘community service hours’ requirement), alongside university and community partners. Because parents may have been wary of providing information to unfamiliar individuals, community residents, particularly individuals who represented familiar faces at the each school, accompanied the university students in the recruitment process. School liaisons at each school helped to distribute surveys to parents alongside university students and members of Safe Kids.


The Safe Kids After-School Survey

In order to encourage the inclusion of the voice of local youth in the development of the survey, focus groups with children on the topic of after-school experiences aided the development of survey content, ensuring that survey questions would make sense to youth participants. Sixteen participants in a summer youth program in the community (ages 8–13) participated in the youth focus groups. Participating youth were boys and girls who resided in the community and attended public schools in the community. Parents were not included in the focus groups due to time limitations. Focus group questions covered the following: (a) what children typically do after-school, (b) how they learned about and became involved in after-school activities, (c) what prevented them from participating. A particularly useful model for both survey content and format was derived from Goerge and Chaskin’s (2004) survey of Chicago 9th graders and their use of out-of-school time. Qualitative data from focus groups with community youth, experiential expertise of Board members, and previous examples of questionnaires on related topics from the academic literature (particularly Goerge and Chaskin (2004)) informed the specific questions in the survey.

The parent and youth versions of the survey each included 25–30 questions. Survey questions covered three broad categories: satisfaction with and importance of after-school programs, preferred program characteristics, and barriers to participation. Sample questions include: How many days a week would you like to go to an after-school program? Which of the following activities would you most like to do after-school or on the weekend? The response format for both the youth and parent surveys was forced-choice. Some items used a Likert-scale response format, some provided several multiple-choice answers, and some were yes/no questions. On every item, participants had the option to write in an alternative response. The multiple-choice responses were developed by the research team based on (a) response formats already created by Goerge and Chaskin (2004) for their survey of Chicago 9th graders, and (b) youth focus group data. The forced choice format was chosen in order to minimize the amount of time and effort required and to make it easier for children and adults with less advanced writing skills to complete the survey. Wherever possible, the content of the questions in the parent survey matched the content of the youth survey in order to facilitate comparison. However, some questions were only relevant to one group and therefore not included in both surveys.


Findings that were judged by the community partners to be relevant to the community with regard to increasing and sustaining youth (and parent) involvement in after-school programming are presented below. Survey questions that were asked on a 5 point Likert scale used 1 as the negative pole (e.g., not at all satisfied) and 5 as the positive pole (e.g., very satisfied).

Perceived Needs and Resources

Satisfaction with and Importance of Programming

In the assessment of needs and resources, youth and parents were asked to report their level of satisfaction with their current after-school arrangements. Youth overall were moderately satisfied (M = 3.69, SD = 1.28) with 43% currently enrolled in an after-school program. However, youth who were currently enrolled in an after-school program reported a significantly higher rate of satisfaction with how they spend their time than youth who did not participate in formal after-school activities (participants M = 4.05, SD = 1.16, non-participants M = 3.44, SD = 1.29; t = 4.855, p < .0001; Cohen’s d = .49). Similarly, parents overall reported a moderate satisfaction rate with their child’s current after-school activities (M = 3.25, SD = 1.33), however, the parental rate of satisfaction was significantly lower than the youth rate of satisfaction (t = 3.60, p < .001). In the overall sample, 94.8% of parents rated after-school programming as “somewhat” to “very important,” with over 60% rating after-school programming as “very important.” The importance of programming was rated significantly higher by parents than youth (parents M = 4.34, SD = 1.03, youth M = 3.90, SD = 1.25; t = −3.85, p < .001). Notably, 66.5% of parents reported that they work during after-school hours.

Preferred Program Characteristics

The Ideal After-School Program

Youth were asked to help design the ideal after-school program: “If you could create an after-school program for kids like you, what would it look like? The following questions ask you to tell us what the perfect after-school program would be.” Across all three schools, 82.4% of youth (and 93% of parents) reported that they would like to attend an after-school program at least 3 days a week. However, eighth grade students wanted to attend significantly fewer days, as compared with the 4th and 6th graders (t = 4.24, p < .001). Also, 92.7% of parents also reported that they would like the option to choose the number of days their child attends on a more flexible basis. As for program timing, the majority of both parent and youth respondents wanted the program to start between 3 pm and 4 pm and end between 4 pm and 6 pm.

Across all youth, the top five endorsed programs were: field trips (63.3%), sports teams (51.8%), dance (46.7%), computers (44.3%), and music (43.3%). While the top five activities were consistent across the three grades and between schools, boys and girls varied somewhat with boys most often emphasizing sports teams (74.2%) and girls most often choosing dance (69.2%) as the ideal program. Parents nominated the following activities as the top five: computers (71.4%), tutoring (57.1%), music (36.6%), arts and crafts (30.4%), and mentoring (34.2%). Parents and youth had distinctly different preferences for types of activities: youth were three times more likely to endorse field trips [χ2(1) = 97.36, p < .0001], twice as likely to request sports teams [χ2(1) = 37.99, p < .001], and significantly more likely to choose dance [χ2(1) = 25.71, p < .001]. On the other hand, parents were much more likely to endorse academic or ‘learning’ activities: parents were three times more likely than youth to choose tutoring as a desired activity [χ2(1) = 94.64, p < .0001] and significantly more likely to endorse “computers” [χ2(1) = 34.15, p < .001], and mentoring [χ2(1) = 60.69, p < .001]. In fact, parents most commonly listed “computers” (72.1%) as the after-school activity they would like their children to participate in.

Balancing Academic, Recreational, and Social Activities

The survey also tapped motivation for participation in an after-school program. Across the entire sample of youth, “to do something fun” (62.5%) and “to learn new things” (58.6%) were endorsed as the top two reasons for participation in an after-school activity. Social reasons “to be with friends” (37.0%) and “to make new friends” (32.3%) as well as “to get help with schoolwork” (28.8%) rounded out the top five. Diverging significantly from the youth responses, parents were more likely to identify academics and more generalized learning as main reasons for participation: (1) to learn new things (76.1%), (2) to get help with schoolwork (48.4%), and (3) to use time productively (42.8%).

Getting Help with Schoolwork

Both parents and youth often endorsed getting help with schoolwork as a key reason for participating in after-school programs. In the overall sample, 71.9% of students reported that they had trouble doing schoolwork at least “sometimes.” In addition, 65.9% reported that they would like help with their schoolwork after-school. While only 39.1% of parents reported that their children had trouble with their schoolwork, 88.0% reported that they would like their children to receive help for schoolwork after-school. Furthermore, almost 60% of parents wanted more tutoring programs to be offered in the community.

Barriers to Participation

When listed in checklist form, few barriers to participation were actually endorsed by either the youth or the parent samples. However, both parent and youth responses were augmented when answering questions about particular barriers (such as family responsibilities and safety). Overall, 53.1% of youth and 46.9% of parents reported that nothing prevented them from enrolling in after-school programming. Yet significant percentages of youth and parents reported youth responsibility for younger siblings after-school and lack of safety going home after-school when those topics were queried separately. For parents, the most frequently endorsed barriers were: not knowing what activities were available (23.2%), cost (20.8%), and unavailability of the activity in the community (19.3%). In fact, parents were significantly more likely than youth to rate as barriers not knowing what activities were available (χ2(1) = 15.52, p < .001), cost (χ2(1) = 14.97, p < .001), and the unavailability of the activity (χ2(1) = 14.97, p < .001).

Barriers: Family Responsibilities

For youth, responsibilities at home comprised the most commonly reported barriers: responsibility for siblings (12.1%) and responsibility for chores (12.3%). Youth were significantly more likely than parents to rate responsibility for siblings (χ2(1) = 10.32, p < .001) and responsibility for chores (χ2(1) = 7.70, p < .01) as barriers to participation in after-school programs. Though only 12.1% of students reported that taking care of siblings was a barrier to enrolling in after-school activities, almost one-third of students reported that they “sometimes” take care of siblings and over one-third of students reported that they take care of siblings “everyday.” Though responsibility for siblings was not seen as a barrier to participation in after-school programming by many parents, 42.9% of parents reported that their children were in fact responsible for siblings “sometimes” to “everyday” after-school. Interestingly, the mean frequency of responsibility for siblings as rated by parents (M = 2.37, SD = 1.49) was significantly lower than the mean frequency according to youth (M = 3.25, SD = 1.58) [(t = 5.84, p < .001)].

Barriers: Safety and Transportation

Though few parents and youth rated safety as a barrier to participation, 39.5% of parents rated their children’s safety and 31.3% of youth rated their own safety going home as “not at all safe” to “somewhat safe.” It’s important to note that another 43.3% of parents rated their child’s safety and 61.0% of youth rated their own safety returning home as “very safe.” For youth, the overall mean for perceived safety getting home was M = 4.24 (scale from 1 to 5, 5 is “very safe”). However, perceived safety at an after-school program was rated lower by youth (M = 3.74, SD = 1.26), with 47.8% of respondents rating after-school programs as “somewhat safe” to “not at all safe.”


Survey findings suggest that after-school program participation is a priority for both youth and parents. Over 60% of parents rated after-school programming as “very important.” With two-thirds of parents reporting that they work during after-school hours, it is possible that the importance of programming is related to parents’ need for childcare once the school day ends. However, it is essential to move beyond this reported interest in after-school programming to understand what parents and youth expect from and look forward to in the ideal after-school program.

Not surprisingly, parents and youth differed somewhat regarding activity preferences. In general, parents tended to endorse more academic activities that might enhance academic success and build academic skills whereas youth reported a desire for more action-oriented after-school activities (e.g., field trips, sports teams, dance). Relative to youth, parents may be more aware of the serious disadvantages faced by their children if they are not able to develop sufficient academic and technological capacity to succeed in the world today. It was hypothesized by the community partners that the importance of computers for parents in the community may be a result of the “digital divide.” Many parents may feel disadvantaged in today’s job market because of limited access to computers and subsequent deficiency in computer skills (Dutta-Bergman 2005) and may feel that their children’s exposure to current technology is particularly important for their future. In contrast, youth seem to want a break from academics immediately following the end of school. The desire for recreational activities may be enhanced by the decrease in hours allotted for recess, physical education, music, and the arts during the school day (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Salient differences between youth and parent activity preferences

In order to fulfill student needs and simultaneously meet parent expectations, a blend of academic, recreational, and communal (or social) activities appears to be an important mix for after-school programs to achieve. Though parents and youth disagreed on their choices for top activities, they indicated significant overlapping preferences as well. For example, computers were the most popular choice amongst parents and ranked fourth amongst students. Further, both parents and youth included music as one of their top five activity preferences. Future programs should capitalize on these areas of consensus in order to offer programming that matches both youth and parent preferences. The design of new after-school activities should also strive to integrate youth and parent preferences where possible. For example, mentoring opportunities could be formally structured into sports team participation, and computers could be used in music or art projects.

The survey results also highlighted key factors for youth engagement in after-school programming. Results indicated that the social component of after-school programming, in which youth have opportunities to spend time with friends and make new friends, is particularly salient for this age group. The preference for ‘hanging out with friends’ matches findings in the HFRP (2004) review and the US Department of Education’s (2003) evaluation of the twenty-first century after-school programs. The HFRP (2004) review recommended that after-school academic activities should be engaging and different from the student’s school-day curriculum. Project-based learning may offer a more engaging alternative to traditional homework sessions (Bartko 2005). However, students did recognize the need for more help with homework. Future programs could build in a tutoring and homework help component in which students could receive guidance with homework or with a particular academic subject. The involvement of older students as tutors for younger students may also increase engagement. If academic experiences are combined with social and recreational activities, the after-school program may appeal to both youth and parents.

Perceived barriers formed another important component of the survey. Parents listed three concerns: lack of knowledge about after-school programs, cost, and lack of availability of programs. These three barriers suggest that parents perceived access to programming as limited. Developing a streamlined system for disseminating information about school and community-based extracurricular programs may alleviate limited access to information. Concerns regarding cost highlight the need for inexpensive or free-of-charge programming for children in this community.

Responsibility for siblings after-school acts as another barrier to participation for many youth who want to be more involved in after-school programming (HFRP 2004). Community partners as well as children participating in the focus groups emphasized that caring for younger siblings or “babysitting” often presented a barrier to participating in after-school programs that only target one age group. There was a discrepancy between the reports of parents and children regarding self-care and responsibility for siblings. It is possible that parents do not wish to report their children’s self-care or responsibility for siblings during the after-school hours. It should also be noted that amongst the sample of parents who attended Report Card Pickup Day and participated in the survey, parents who work between 12 pm and 6 pm may have been under-represented. The higher percentages of sibling care reported by youth corroborate Goerge and Chaskin’s (2004) survey of Chicago 9th graders in which similar rates of responsibility for siblings after-school were reported. After-school programs may need to target a wide variation in age to accommodate age groups from kindergarten to eighth grade. If families could enroll all of their children in one program, the responsibility of older siblings to take care of younger siblings might be alleviated, as well as transportation problems for parents who need to pick up multiple children at the end of the day.

A final barrier was the perception of safety at after-school programs, which differed greatly between youth and parents: nearly 100% of the parents viewed after-school programs as somewhat to very safe, while nearly 50% of the youth viewed the programs as somewhat to not at all safe. The contrasting perceptions of safety need to be explored further. Clearly, some after-school programs are not experienced as safe. Without a sense of safety, youth will be reluctant to attend. The discrepancy between the perceived safety of after-school programs and the perceived safety of ‘getting home’ requires further investigation. Because of the violence that occurs within many of the community schools, youth may perceive the after-school programs located at school as unsafe. It seems clear that safety (both in an after-school program and getting to and from an after-school program) will need to be of primary concern.

Overall, the survey findings dovetail with previous research that suggests that relationships with caring adults, opportunities for leadership and socializing, engagement in interesting learning experiences, and individual sense of safety are key program features needed to maintain youth engagement (Weiss et al. 2005).

Strengths and Limitations of the Survey

In an innovative approach to develop a clear picture of the needs of families, both youth and parents were recruited to participate. Because youth survey recruitment occurred in the classroom during the school day, many youth who need after-school programming as protection from the dangers of the street (e.g., exposure to community violence, involvement in gang activity) participated in the survey. The community-based collaborative approach to survey research enhanced the relevance and usefulness of the survey results and increased the likelihood that the findings would have an impact on future after-school programming.

However, it should be noted that while the findings were useful to the wider community and the sample was recruited from three different neighborhoods within the community, one limitation is that the current study only sampled a small percentage of the community’s population and therefore may not reflect a diversity of responses. In addition, the parent sample may over-represent parents who are more engaged in their children’s education or who have the resources to attend Report Card Pick Up Day and spend an extra 15 min completing a survey. Therefore, the survey sample may not represent parents from some of the highest-risk families, and those in greatest need of after-school programming. Further, other community stakeholders, such as school personnel and CBO staff, were not included in the survey. The survey itself was developed collaboratively with community members and asked a broad range of questions regarding after-school arrangements in the target community. However, its psychometric properties have not been validated. One parent survey question revealed unreliable data regarding whether or not the parent’s children (in the target age group) currently attended after-school programming. Therefore, comparisons between parents of youth currently attending after-school programming and parents of youth not attending could not be made. Future research should attempt to develop assessment measures that are both relevant to the target community and psychometrically sound.

Broader Relevance of Survey Results

The differences between youth and parents evidenced in the survey data could have significant implications for the design and implementation of after-school programs in other communities. Though it is possible that pronounced group differences are idiosyncratic to the target community, it is more likely that surveys of low-income African American urban communities across the country could find similar variations between the stated needs and preferences of parents versus youth. The results of the survey emphasize the importance of surveying multiple groups within the community in order to include as many perspectives as possible in the design of after-school programs.

The generational gap evidenced in the survey data is not surprising based on the differences in perspective between youth and adults. The occasionally wide variations in the views of parents versus youth suggest that both parents and youth need to be included in the planning process. Though it is particularly important to maintain youth interest in the program (in order to prevent ‘drop-out’), parental support for the program is crucial for the enrollment of youth, continued youth participation, and parental involvement. Throughout early adolescence, parents maintain their role as gatekeepers to extra-curricular activity (Outley and Floyd 2002). According to the survey data, decision-making for after-school involvement included both youth and parents. Encouraging contributions from both generations on after-school needs and resources would allow researchers and/or program developers to understand both youth and parent perspectives and to develop a consensus approach to after-school programming. The survey findings suggest that communities planning to develop, improve, or expand after-school programming should survey the people in the community who would directly benefit (community stakeholders) in order to obtain an accurate picture of families’ needs and preferences.


We would like to thank the members of the Safe Kids Partnership, particularly Reverend Lewis Flowers, Yvonne Mesa-Magee, Rose Lovelace, and Donna Kanapes for their tireless work and enduring commitment to preventing violence in the community and providing after-school programming for community youth. In addition, we appreciate the insightful commentary provided by the youth advisory board. We are also grateful for the involvement and support of the community schools that participated in the parent and youth surveys, as well as the students who helped us develop the surveys. Finally, we would like to thank the Loyola University Chicago undergraduate and graduate students who assisted us in each stage of our work.

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© Society for Community Research and Action 2010