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Why you should celebrate Lights On Afterschool

I've been in the after school and summer learning field for more than 15 years. I started with internships and line staff positions. I eventually became a Site Coordinator and continued to advance in the Expanded Learning field. I've been an advocate and a technical assistance provider, and now I'm privileged to be fundraising for an advocacy and capacity building organization focused on Expanded Learning. In each of these roles I've observed the opportunity provided by public moments. Like the Expanded Learning time equivalent of Back to School Night, "Lights on Afterschool" provides a powerful public moment for after school programs. 

I’ve been in the after school and summer learning field for more than 15 years. I started with internships and line staff positions. I eventually became a Site Coordinator and continued to advance in the Expanded Learning field. I’ve been an advocate and a technical assistance provider, and now I’m privileged to be fundraising for an advocacy and capacity building organization focused on Expanded Learning. In each of these roles I’ve observed the opportunity provided by public moments. Like the Expanded Learning time equivalent of Back to School Night, “Lights on Afterschool” provides a powerful public moment for after school programs.

According to the National Afterschool Association (NAA), “On Thursday, October 25, 2018, one million Americans will celebrate afterschool programs at 8,000 events nationwide… (Lights on Afterschool) is a golden opportunity to make sure parents, policymakers, and communities understand the impact of afterschool programs in keeping kids safe, inspiring them to learn, and giving families peace of mind.” NAA has tools for programs to plan events, generate press coverage, engage families and the community, and encourage local policy makers to support afterschool programs.

We also recently wrapped up the annual summer learning event, National Summer Learning Day, which is organized by the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) and supported by Summer Matters here in California. NSLA has a number of tools to support your communication efforts too.

Thinking about hosting your own Lights on Afterschool event? Here are three reasons I would recommend you do exactly that:

Public moments like Lights on Afterschool improve visibility in the community.

Many parents and families need afterschool programs to keep their kids safe and engaged between the hours of 3-6pm. That said, fewer families have the opportunity to actually visit and see what the program does. Worse, there might be families in which their only interaction with the afterschool program staff is concerning their child’s behavior or academics. These critical conversations represent an important opportunity to collaborate in supporting children, but they require trust. The best way to build trust is to have lots of positive interactions first. Lights on Afterschool is a chance to showcase programs and student work and build relationships with the community early in the school year.

Public moments like Lights on Afterschool galvanize the support of school administrators.

I worked with a great Principal and Assistant Principal in my first year as a Site Coordinator. (Side note, that Assistant Principal is now the Executive Director of an Afterschool agency). They were supportive, trusting, and understood the importance of the program. Even then, they rarely visited the program. They were there for a couple of key moments; the first day of the school year, back to school night, the first day of the summer program, etc. In the day to day, they trusted me to run the program. This meant that public moments were one of their only experiential touch points. Without them, the occasional parent compliant or noisy activity could cloud their perception of the program and quickly diminish support and trust.

Public Moments like Lights on Afterschool provide positive pressure on potentially supportive policymakers.

As part of the Summer Matters campaign, we encourage community programs to host nearby superintendents, school board members, and politicians at their National Summer Learning Day events. This provides them with a tangible experience of what we do. We’re able to dispel the myth that this is just babysitting. We’re able to demonstrate a need for more funding while demonstrating how we have stewarded the funding we do have. Most importantly, these events provide peer pressure. Superintendents will launch, or invest in, after school and summer programs because they are impressed with (or jealous of?) the programs supported by their peers. School Boards all over the country are passionate and informed about education issues, but not all of them. Sometimes the only requirement to run for school board is that the candidate live in the school district. These folks need to educated on the merits of Expanded Learning programs, which  may not otherwise be top of mind. The same goes for other politicians. Afterschool programs may not be at the top of your local representative’s agenda, but these programs likely support something that is such as community safety, the economy, etc. Invite local politicians to your Lights on Afterschool or National Summer Learning Day event. They want to – and need to – interact with the community. These type of visits are a great photo-op for them and we need their support. As many of you know, the Save Afterschool campaign recently won an additional $50 million in annual ASES funding here in California, and we couldn’t have done that without years of effort gaining political support. At the local level you might be looking for support in charging family fees, accessing LCAP funds, or launching a fundraising event.

So what are you doing for Lights on Afterschool? Tell me in the comments. Be sure to register your event with NAA.

Daren Howard is a social sector consultant and writer. He currently serves as a member of the Board of Directors at InPlay, a nonprofit that seeks to increase equitable access to after school and summer learning programs. Daren earned his MBA at California State University Dominguez Hills, but will never be done learning.

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