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Community Learning Centers: Keeping School Open After School Lets Out

Community Learning Centers: Keeping School Open After School Lets Out

Share A new guidebook, available on the Internet, can help school leaders in establishing programs that keep kids off the street and benefit all members of a community.

Many children in the United States struggle to learn in the face of enormous challenges, including learning disabilities, violence, drugs, and lack of supervision by adults. Dynamic Community Learning Centers can help these children and their communities, asserts the new guidebook Keeping Schools Open as Community Learning Centers: Extending Learning in a Safe, Drug-Free Environment Before and After School. The guidebook outlines the steps in converting a school into a Community Learning Center and lists resources for further information and assistance

Children, parents, and other community members use Community Learning Centers, which provide a haven from violence, drugs, and lack of supervision for children. "Community Learning Centers get us 'back to basics,' back to active community involvement in raising and educating all of our children," the guidebook concludes.

Why are Community Learning Centers needed? According to the guidebook, as recently as the 1993-94 school year, "only 3.4 percent of children in public elementary and combined schools were enrolled in the 18,111 before- or after-school programs at public school." In many cases, there are no organized before- and after-school programs available to children in public schools. In addition, less than 1 percent of 7th and 8th graders were in programs in 1991, despite what the report cites as substantial need for programs serving older children.

Working parents often want their children to have learning opportunities that extend beyond the school day. In a 1994 survey, 56 percent of parents said that many parents leave their children alone too much after school. A 1989 survey of school principals showed that 84 percent believed there is a need for before- and after-school programs.


Three profiles demonstrate the wide range of programs Community Learning Centers can offer. Essentially, a Community Learning Center needs to reflect and meet the needs of the whole community it serves.

Safety. The city of Madison, Wisconsin, operates a Safe Haven after-school program at three elementary schools in communities with high crime and poverty rates. More than 200 children participate in the program. The program offers homework help, academic enrichment, arts and crafts, supervised games and physical education, and field trips. Each school integrates its own approach to conflict resolution into the program by linking after-school activities to such in-school strategies as peer mediation and a drug-prevention program. The results: As Safe Haven enters its third year, Safe Haven schools report improved attendance and reduced conflicts during after-school hours. Children in the program also demonstrate increased interest in their homework.

Family focus. The Twilight Family Learning Center in the Elk Grove (California) Unified School district consists of programs at four large elementary schools in the district. The Learning Centers are open year round, as are the schools that house them; all the schools have school-wide Title 1 programs. Centers offer homework/tutoring, preschool classes, and a variety of classes for adults on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m. The programs emphasize literacy development because many participants are recent immigrants. The overall program focuses on improving student performance through parental involvement. Parents can choose from a variety of classes, including ESL, citizenship, parenting, and other adult education classes. Participants take a break at 5:30 to eat soup donated by Campbells, a large local employer.

The basics. Carmen Elementary School in Flint, Michigan, serves 280 students in grades 4-6. The principal, teachers, and parents who operate the school developed an after-school and summer program that focuses on educational opportunities for all students. The program assists many students who are at-risk for dropping out of school. Student instruction includes the use of computers for learning as well as workshops in reading, science, math, and social studies. Program funding comes from the Title 1 program, a state program for at-risk students, and the school district's general fund. In the state assessment, students score near the 80th percentile on reading, writing, math, and science tests.


Public schools, the guidebook says, are uniquely suited to provide before- and after-school care because:

  • Research shows the need for young people to learn in a safe and drug-free environment.
  • Public schools can offer a low-cost, accessible place to extend learning.
  • Community Learning Centers are qualified to help younger children meet the America Reads Challenge that all children will read independently and successfully by the end of third grade.
  • Such centers can provide the added support many children need to pass Algebra and Geometry in middle and junior high schools and succeed in challenging courses in high school necessary to prepare for college.


Practical tips for how to create a community learning center abound in the guidebook. The suggestions include:

  • Estimate typical costs. Costs of Community Learning Centers vary greatly. Programs can meet costs in different ways: user fees; a mix of local, state, and federal government funding; public or private grants; partnerships with community and private sector sponsors; asking parents, community members, or others to volunteer time.
  • Develop a Community Learning Center budget. Developing a budget is a must for gaining financing. Itemizing expenses commonly associated with establishing and running a program and then itemizing the potential sources for financing the expenses is a useful way to begin.
  • Build consensus and partnership. Not only parents and educators but also community residents, service providers, and public officials may need and want to be involved in the process.
  • Conduct a community assessment of needs and resources. Use interviews, surveys, focus groups, and community forums to arrive at a community assessment. Bring all local stakeholders into the assessment process.
  • Design an effective program. Every school and community must determine how best to address local concerns. Each successful program, however, must establish vision and focus, address needs appropriately, coordinate participants' contributions, and set up a system of accountability from the beginning.
  • Consider logistical issues. School governance, liability, and building maintenance are vital in making a Community Learning Center work.
  • Obtain qualified staff. Staff can come from the school, a partner organization, or the community but must have relevant experience, realistic goals, and true concern for children.
  • Evaluate a program's accomplishments. Ongoing monitoring of the progress of a program can help all involved maintain their focus, improve effectiveness, and identify needed modifications.

Article by Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
Copyright © 1997 Education World

Related Resources

  • The Guidebook The contents of the guidebook Keeping Schools Open as Community Learning Centers: Extending Learning in a Safe, Drug-Free Environment Before and After School can be found at this site. The guidebook is the product of a partnership of the National Community Education Association, the U.S. Department of Education, Policy Studies Associates, Inc., and the American Bar Association, Division of Public Education.
  • The National Crime Prevention Council provides examples of before- and after-school programs that provide safe havens for young people who want to stay away from gangs and drugs.
  • Adventure Time is a before- and after-school program located on elementary school campuses, licensed by the State of California Department of Social Services. The program combines enrichment activities and extended day care.


These organizations are involved in extended-time learning programs and can be resources in the efforts of others.

Corporation for National Service
1201 New York Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20525

Boys and Girls Clubs of America
1230 West Peachtree Street, NW
Atlanta, GA 30309
(404) 815-5765

National Community Education Association
3929 Old Lee Highway
Suite 91-A
Fairfax, VA 22030
(703) 359-8973

National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts
P.O. Box 8018
Englewood, NJ 07631
(201) 871-3337

School-Age Child Care Project
Center for Research on Women
Wellesley College
Wellesley, MA 02181
(617) 283-2547

Click here for additional organizations involved in extended learning-time programs that can serve as resources.


The following are among the publications that can be ordered free, while supplies last, from the U.S. Department of Education by calling 1-800-USA-LEARN.

The following is available free of charge from the U.S. Department of Education by calling 1-800-624-0100:

Creating Safe Schools: A Resource Collection for Planning and Action This resource package of seven previously published documents provides school administrators and community leaders with an effective way to view, select and integrate violence prevention policies and programs in schools. (1996)


Partnership for Family Involvement in Education
600 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20202-8173

Making Schools Safe and Drug Free
The Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act provides
funding through the U.S. Department of Education.
Call 202-260-3954.

21st Century Community Learning Centers
Call 202-219-1591.