The 21st century has seen a considerable increase in the establishment of after-school programs across the United States (U.S. Department of Education, 2005; Vandell & Shumow, 1999). Federal, state, city, and community initiatives have created or expanded after-school enrichment programs in both public and private organizations (Halpern, 1999). In fact, the United States Congress recently appropriated over $1 billion to maintain or establish after-school programs during the 2005-2006 academic year (U.S. Department of Education, 2005). Such initiatives have established after-school programs in a wide variety of locations, usually within schools, community centers, park and recreation facilities, youth organizations (e.g., Boys and Girls Clubs), YMCA/YWCAs, religious institutions, museums, and libraries (Davis, 2001; Lipsitz, 1986). With such a variety of locations, the number of after-school programs has increased in all major urban areas, and youth participation in these programs strengthens every year. Indeed, it is currently estimated that approximately 25 to 30 percent of American youths spend between three and five afternoons each week in organized after-school programs (Halpern, 2003; Reno & Riley, 2000).
To a great extent, this rapid growth in after-school programming has occurred in response to the dramatic rise in the number of divorces, single-parent families, and families with two working parents. Each of these familial situations results in households where adults may not be regularly available to care for their children (Nash & Fraser, 1998; Sanacore, 2002). Among families with children between six and 17 years of age, the custodial parent works outside the home in 79 percent of single-mother families and 85 percent of single-father families. In addition, 70 percent of two-parent households with school-age children have both parents working outside the home (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005). Research also suggests a substantial gap between parents' work schedules and children's school schedules, leaving potentially over 20 hours per week that school-age children could be left unsupervised (Reno & Riley, 2000; Seligson, 1991).
Research has further suggested far-reaching negative effects of leaving children and teens unsupervised after school. For instance, children exposed to inadequate or nonexistent care are more susceptible to peer pressure and negative influences than those who receive structured and supervised care (Baker & Witt, 1996). Fortunately, similar research has shown after-school programs to be effective in preventing and reversing much of these negative effects. When compared to children and teens who regularly participate in constructive after-school activities, those who are unsupervised are much more likely to engage in substance abuse, criminal activities, and other high-risk behaviors. They are also more likely to display problem behaviors, receive poor grades, and drop out of school (Reno & Riley, 2000).
Children left unattended in the afternoon also may not receive sufficient levels of physical activity. After-school programs in many states are beginning to serve a critical role in promoting and implementing youth sports and recreational activities that are not provided to all students during the regular school day; in fact, most youth sports and recreation programs take place solely during after-school hours (National Association of State Boards of Education, 2005).
Program Quality and Evaluation
Although there is no single formula for establishing quality after-school programs, successful programs typically combine academic, recreational, physical, and artistic elements within a curriculum designed to engage youths in a variety of structured and supervised activities (Reno & Riley, 2000). While the nature and specific curriculum of after-school programs are often heterogeneous across programs (Halpern, …