Over the past few months, election speeches and news headlines have rightly emphasized the importance of quality education for all of Chicago’s students. Discussion of the upcoming Chicago Teachers Union contract negotiations, as well as the CPS budget, have already begun in earnest with the goal of further increasing the quality of education.
Yet, one proven ingredient to success for our youth has been left out of those conversations — out-of-school time activities.
This week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Chicago for a discussion about the importance of out-of-school time activities and his message was clear — quality classroom time and extracurricular activities are critical for reaching a zero percent drop-out rate and improved high school graduation rates to meet our national goals. He said we often focus on one or the other — classroom time or extracurriculars — when in fact they must be considered in tandem.
A recent article in The Atlantic, entitled “The Activity Gap,” discussed a new study that compares youth participation in structured, extracurricular activities across the U.S. from the 1970s to today, and spans diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. The study, from Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform, painted a picture that very accurately represents the current situation facing Chicago’s public school students citywide.
The study found that “for many children, the rising costs of sports teams and campus clubs have made after-school activities a luxury their parents can’t afford.” Therefore, we see a growing divide in access to after-school programs that is pushing our nation’s lower-income youth further behind their middle class peers.
With all of the issues plaguing schools today, especially in underserved Chicago neighborhoods, it may seem off base to focus on activities outside the classroom. But out-of-school time experiences have just as much impact on a young person’s life as time in the classroom. There have even been findings demonstrating that involvement in extracurricular activities is just as meaningful as test scores when it comes to subsequent educational attainment and accumulated earnings later in life. These activities teach students life skills such as teamwork and communication, which have been associated with greater returns in the labor market.
The Atlantic article talks about a challenge that we are all very aware of right now — the impact of budget cuts on necessary programming, such as extracurricular activities. It states, “When [a budget cut] happens, it’s typically up to parents to foot the bill. For families with means, the costs are usually nominal, but for those struggling to get by, they could mean the difference between a kid competing in a sport or playing in the school band, and staying on the sidelines or missing out on a new instrument.” Unfortunately, we know the impact could actually be far more dire — it could be the difference between a stable career or a life on the streets.
It’s essential that all youth — regardless of Zip code, income or family situation — have access to the extracurricular programming that can provide them the opportunities they need to succeed.
Business and civic leaders in Chicago should feel an imperative to support the next generation of employees and leaders in our city. We must stand strong as the ambassadors for and voices of local teens. There is no better investment of our time and financial resources than providing greater access to critical out-of-school time programming for Chicago’s youth.
Mellody Hobson is board chair of After School Matters. Mary Ellen Caron chief executive officer.