After-school-program providers are struggling with a host of problems as they gear up for the 2022-23 school year. At the top of the list are attracting and retaining employees and generating enough funding to stay afloat, a new survey found.
To get a read on just how serious these problems are in the United States, the EdWeek Research Center conducted a nationally representative survey, May 31-June 10, of 269 K-12 principals and 712 after-school program personnel. It found that 67 percent of principals and 61 percent of after-school providers said a major challenge right now and for the foreseeable future is recruiting and retaining qualified employees for after-school programs, whether they are run by the schools themselves or outside organizations.
The staffing shortages come at a critical time, as schools are looking for more assistance helping students recover academically from the pandemic-related struggles of the past two-plus years. Many educators see after-school providers as a potentially key partner in addressing that learning recovery.
The EdWeek Research Center findings are similar to those from a March survey commissioned by the Afterschool Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy organization. The Alliance survey found that 74 percent of after-school providers reported that it has been difficult hiring and/or retaining staff.
The struggles of after-school providers to fill open positions mirror what is happening in schools, as thousands of open positions go unfilled for teachers, bus drivers, and other positions.
That is a big problem because teachers often work in after-school programs to make money on top of their regular salaries, and to engage students in enrichment activities, such as art or science.
“Teachers are worn out after last year. All staff are worn out,” said Melissa Barnett, the principal of South Pointe Junior High School in Phoenix. Finding someone who is passionate and willing to work in or oversee an after-school program has been a challenge, she said.
Much like schools themselves, after-school programs are not only short of teachers, many are also struggling to find bus drivers to pick up students from school and take them to after-school programs.
“There is a waitlist [in my program] simply because of [bus driver shortages]. So sometimes we would have to circle back around to a school a second or third time just to avoid [creating] that waitlist,” said Erica Conklin, director of Kids Haven After School Care in Lexington, S.C.
The other big challenge facing after-school programs: budgets not keeping pace with the rising costs of running programs, which are being exacerbated by the rapid pace of inflation and rising fuel costs over the past year.
Funding for after-school programs come from a variety of sources.
“Most programs survive on parent fees,” said Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance. Some programs might receive some federal funding through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant program. The American Rescue Plan also provided billions of dollars specifically for after-school and summer programs.
After-school programs could also be partially funded by state or local governments and philanthropies.
But based on the Afterschool Alliance’s research, parent fees are the most commonly reported funding source. “Which is why as program costs go up, parents are struggling to find ways to afford programs,” Grant added.
The EdWeek Research Center survey also revealed other emerging problems, such as students misbehaving more, not enough slots for families who want their children to participate, families not being able to afford program fees, and insufficient communication between schools and programs.
Grant said all these challenges are “interrelated.” Without the budget to attract qualified employees, after-school providers might be forced to decrease the number of students they can take in or have a higher teacher-student ratio or increase enrollment prices.
Failure to attract enough workers and keep them continues to frustrate after-school providers
To attract workers, 30 percent of survey respondents said they’ve increased salaries, and 16 percent have offered free child care for staff members.
“We used to pay people minimum wage,” said Conklin. “But we’ve had to increase our rate of pay in order to be more competitive with some of the fast food industry.”
In a section of the EdWeek Research Center survey where respondents can share a story or perspective, many respondents also mentioned their programs’ inability to compete with wages offered at fast food restaurants like McDonald’s or big box stores like Walmart.
“There is no possible way that I can pay my staff what the gas stations and fast food restaurants are. We would have to raise our rates so high that we would lose families,” said an after-school director in Iowa. “We need the funding to pay our staff what they all deserve so then we can not only retain our current staff but recruit more staff and fill the open spots that are available.”
A smaller number of respondents said they’ve expanded professional development opportunities, offered sign-on bonuses or reduced qualifications requirements.
Meanwhile, 22 percent said nothing they’ve done has been effective at attracting workers. Some respondents, in the open-ended section of the survey, mentioned that even though they have open positions advertised, there have been no applicants.
One survey respondent, an after-school director in Alaska, said their program has been “operating at 30 percent capacity because they have no staff. People are not even applying.”
Not enough slots for families who want to participate
Another major challenge after-school programs are facing is the increased demand for after-school care.
Ninety percent of principals and after-school personnel said that there are after-school programs in their district or school, but the survey also found that more than 1 of every 4 respondents said there are too few slots for families who want to participate.
To help address the mismatch between the number of parents who need after-school programming versus the number of slots available, 41 percent of principals and after-school personnel said existing programs are trying to expand.
Schools are also doing their part to try to bridge the gap. Nearly 30 percent of respondents said schools have been starting after-school programs of their own, and 20 percent said schools are working with providers to start or restart programs.
Kimberly Jordan, principal of Sunrise Elementary School in Albany, Ore., said her school doesn’t currently offer school-sponsored after-school programs because she doesn’t have the staffing and budget for it.
“If I had the money to have after-school programs and I had the personnel that would be willing to work it, I would do it. Because I know that I have a lot of children who would benefit from it and who would stay [after school],” she said.
For next school year, she has set aside some money in her Title I budget so she can start after-school enrichment programs that will support her school’s Title I goals. Some of the programs that will be offered include a STEM club, Minecraft club, chess, choir, and theater.
Yet even with all the challenges facing after-school programs, 76 percent of principals and after-school personnel said they’re “somewhat” or “very” likely to be able to meet families’ needs next school year.
“This year, things have been especially difficult recruiting and retaining staff for our after-school programs to the point we had only been open for three days a week instead of five. We are hopeful that this will change in the upcoming 22-23 school year,” said one survey respondent.
Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.
Coverage of afterschool learning opportunities is supported in part by a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.