As summer winds down and students get ready to once again start the school year, teachers are busy planning academic lessons for the year. Students (and their parents) may be experiencing anticipation and anxiety, particularly about what kind of grades they’ll get this year. High school students that are beginning to think about college and other post-secondary education plans may begin to increase their focus on academic goals. In Vermont, data about afterschool participation and the academic performance of high school students was recently made available; and it supports what research has been showing for years: that participation in quality organized afterschool activities supports academic achievement.
For quality afterschool programs that foster academic gains in students, there are several possible reasons for this success. Some programs work to achieve this very intentionally by providing tutoring and homework help. Others provide lessons and hands-on experiences that correspond with academic lessons taught during the school day to help support learning. Afterschool participation has also been found to reduce absenteeism, which in turn helps students boost their grades because they can be more engaged in their day-to-day classroom learning simply by being present. And we also know from research that participation in afterschool activities makes students less likely to engage in risk behaviors such as fighting, having unprotected sex, and doing drugs. So it’s probably safe to say that students who are spending less time engaging in these harmful behaviors have more time and mental capacity to focus on their schoolwork.
In the spring of 2017, Vermont’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) asked over 20,000 high school students (grades 9-12) in Vermont to indicate whether their grades were “mostly A’s,” “mostly B’s,” “mostly C’s,” “mostly D’s,” “mostly F’s,” “none of these grades,” or “not sure.” Forty-three percent of students responded that their grades were “mostly A’s;” 37% said that their grades were “mostly B’s;” 11% responded, “mostly C’s;” 2% said “mosly D’s;” less than 1% said “mostly F’s;” 1% said “none of these grades;” and 4% responded that they weren’t sure.
The percentages shifted significantly for students who participated in at least some amount of afterschool programming. They were asked to respond to the question, “In an average week when you are in school, how many total hours do you participate in afterschool activities such as sports, band, drama, or clubs run by your school or community groups?” Among the students who responded that they participated in zero hours of afterschool activities per week, two-thirds (67%) also responded either that they earn mostly A’s or mostly B’s in school. For students who participated in between one and four hours per week of afterschool activities, this percentage increased to 84%. For students who participated in between five and nine hours of programming per week, 89% indicated that they earned mostly A’s or mostly B’s; and for students who participated in ten or more hours of weekly afterschool programming, 90% indicated that they earned mostly A’s or B’s in school.
The data point to a clear upward trend: as students spend more time per week participating in afterschool activities, the probability that they’ll earn mostly A’s or mostly B’s in school increases. But the most compelling part about this trend is the initial jump in the percentage of students who earn A’s/B’s between “0 hours” of afterschool programming and “1-4 hours” of afterschool programming. This is encouraging; it suggests that even just a few hours of afterschool programming can potentially make a huge difference for students in terms of their academic gains. We should focus on increasing the amount of quality afterschool programming for all of Vermont’s high school students, but increasing access to programming for those who do not currently participating in any afterschool activities will potentially have the biggest impact in terms of academic achievement.