The Future of Federal Afterschool Initiatives - Q&A: Robert Stonehill

by Robert Stonehill
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XVIII, Number 1, May 2006, Time for Achievement - Afterschool and Out-of-School Time

To understand the evolution of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program and its probable future, SEDL Letter recently questioned Robert Stonehill about the federal government's top afterschool effort. Stonehill has directed the program since its inception in 1997 and also serves as deputy director for academic improvement and teacher quality programs for the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

How did the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program first emerge?

The idea of looking at school-based afterschool programs as a federal priority came out of the Clinton administration in 1997. Buried deep within our Elementary and Secondary Education statute was an obscure program, 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which basically kept schools open to serve the community. The department believed this was a program that could be recast, using the existing statutory language, as an afterschool program that allowed schools to stay open, primarily to serve kids in the afterschool hours. We asked Congress for $50 million in the 1998 appropriation—and were quite thrilled to get $40 million. We were in business.

There are approximately 8,900 CCLC programs around the country.

What role did private philanthropy play?

Even before the funds were appropriated, we sat down with the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. They committed $10 million toward this effort initially and have provided that amount every year to support afterschool programs. They would fund the things that the government's program could not fund. Where we got $40 million to give out grants, they would fund training, outreach, bidders' conferences, a technical assistance network—and they would get things rolling even before our grants were made.

How has 21st Century evolved to meet demand?

We ran our competition for $40 million and received almost 2,000 applications in the very first year. Congress instantly saw how much of a demand there was and how much community support there would be for programs like this. The funding just kept skyrocketing. We went from $40 million to $200 million to $453 million to $850 million, and then, by Year 5, to just under $1 billion, which is where funding has stayed for the past couple of years.

What have been the major changes in the program?

The program underwent significant changes in 2002, when it was reauthorized as part of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Under the previous statute, public schools stayed open to serve everyone in the community and were not just limited to serving children or their families. That was one major change.

The second major change was that the program changed eligibility from only public schools to any private or public entity, including faith-based organizations, community-based groups, and other public-sector organizations, such as parks and recreation, museums, and libraries.

Third, 21st Century became not a federally administered program but a state-administered program. Each state would get money by formula and then would run the competitions and fund and oversee the programs. As a result, the $1 billion, which stayed relatively level-funded for the last 4 or 5 years, went in somewhat smaller chunks to more types of entities.

There are now approximately 8,900 21st Century Community Learning Centers around the country. About 3,000 grants go for centers, and those 3,000 grants, in turn, fund the 8,900 centers.

How does the program help meet the goals of NCLB?

No Child Left Behind is all about student achievement—and not only that, but it puts in place accountability systems to make sure that all students are achieving, including students in different subgroups. The 21st Century program is, by statute, targeted at many of the same high-need schools that other federal programs also support with in-school services, particularly Title I programs. It enables kids who need extra help or time to use afterschool hours in constructive ways. It allows kids to get afterschool tutoring or work in small groups to make sure that their homework is done correctly, that they understand what they got during the day.

Also, it's not just more school. It lets them do other things and try new things, and it encourages development of leadership skills and responsibility. We want kids to become filmmakers, stay in shape, and participate in sports because these things are being driven out of the regular school day in many places.

Are we seeing less priority placed on family, community, and providing a safe haven for children in favor of greater focus on academics?

Not less priority on families because family educational services are part of 21st Century's authorized activities. We very much want to bring in students' and participants' family members—to make sure that they connect with the school, know how their kids are doing, and are able to support their learning and development.

The program does downplay, if not eliminate, one role that the old 21st Century program played, which was the establishment of the school as a kind of broad hub for the entire community. We used to fund adult learning activities, driver's education courses, citizenship training, English as a second language, and computers for grandparents, but now the 21st Century funds are targeted toward the needs of participating kids.

From the beginning, 21st Century was about academic enrichment. Over the years, we've come to understand more about the balance between providing enhanced academics and providing other things to attract kids, keep them as regular participants, and serve their other needs.

What role does research play in the afterschool efforts you support?

The department got some bad evaluation news in a study that we funded, which was carried out by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. They found that there weren't any big gains or benefits in at least some randomly selected 21st Century programs. Typical 21st Century programs didn't seem to be all that great. So we decided to focus our efforts on supporting quality in afterschool programs.

There have been thousands of studies done, many of which suggest that afterschool programs have benefits. But few, if any of them, meet the department's standards for evaluation—the gold standard, where you actually use a randomized clinical trial and methodology to see whether this intervention is better than no intervention or some other type of intervention. The department's efforts have moved away from evaluating whether a typically funded program is any good to looking instead at programs that have much higher quality to see whether we could document gains in achievement or positive behaviors in those really high-class programs.

The Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences is funding a study of very good afterschool math and reading programs to look at whether those well-implemented treatments are making a difference with kids. The department is also on the verge of soliciting proposals from afterschool programs around the country that have a good track record and preliminary evidence of effectiveness. We want to select another three, four, five, or so of those to participate in rigorous evaluations. In fact, SEDL has been contracted by the Department of Education to manage the process of finding candidate sites for those evaluations and managing evaluations to make sure they meet our standards of rigor.

What is the current administration's vision for 21st Century?

To get afterschool programs working effectively is our goal now. Our goal in the future will be to use our $1 billion in funding to support model programs of the highest quality that can serve as beacons for other afterschool programs. The federal dollars are about what they've been, so now it's the turn of the municipalities, the mayors, the city councils, the school districts, and the states. For instance, California, New York, and New Jersey are providing hefty contributions of state money to make sure that kids who aren't now being served have the opportunity to participate in programs. California is virtually going to go to scale through Proposition 49, which will pump about $500 million more into creating afterschool opportunities for just about every school in the state that wants these programs.

The challenge is to create these models of excellence, establish training systems, share lessons learned and materials, keep staff stable, and recruit and ensure regular participation by kids. We're trying to create a body of knowledge and a delivery system that will allow these thousands of programs to take quick benefit of all the things that have been learned in the last 15 years.

From the beginning, 21st Century was about academic enrichment.

With 21st Century level-funded at about $981 million for fiscal 2006, is federal support for afterschool adequate to get the job done?

Funding has been leveled out, I believe, at least as long as it's going to take for the 21st Century program to start showing more clearly the benefits to the kids participating. Once our evaluation efforts bear fruit—if they do, if they show that these programs have been effective in improving behaviors and academic performance—then it's up to Congress to reconsider whether to expand these opportunities.

For more information on 21st Century Community Learning Centers and promising practices in afterschool programs, visit the National Partnership for Quality Afterschool Learning's Web site at

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