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After-School Programs Foster Success for Future in Illinois

Some experts say learning shouldn't end when the school bell rings for the day, and Kelley Talbot agrees. As youth development director with Voices for Illinois Children, she says the state has an achievement gap, citing 60 percent of eighth-graders behind the norms for their age in math, 18 percent of students not graduating high school on time, and 20 percent of Illinois children living in poverty.

Talbot says after-school programs can help narrow that gap, and foster college and career readiness.

"When you see a difference in performance among children of different incomes," she explains, "this participation in quality programs - that provide some academic support, and also inspiration and opportunities for engaged learning - can really boost students' scores."

Talbot says positive after-school experiences also lead to better work habits and behavior. 

At Project Exploration, Chicago area students in after-school and summer learning programs were found to graduate at a rate nearly double that of kids attending public schools. Another Chicago program, Becoming a Man for at-risk boys, has reduced failing grades by 37 percent and increased graduation rates by 10 percent.

Rachel Pillot of Chicago says after-school programs gave her the encouragement and support she needed to get to college. She's now pursuing a career in the medical field, and feels children need more enrichment outside of school, particularly those in lower-income communities.

"Those are the ones that should have more of these programs, so the kids can have something to do after school, and people to talk to and things to join," says Pillot. "Through the after-school program, that's how some people find their passion."

Just 16 percent of Illinois youth are in after-school programs, although many parents say they would enroll them if programs were accessible.

State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia of Aurora chairs the Illinois Legislature's Elementary and Secondary Education Committee. In her view, educational opportunities outside the traditional classroom need to be available to all children, year-round. 

"We no longer live in a society where we can say, 'Hey, go away for three months and then come back again," says Chapa LaVia. "We need to be flexible for every child in the system, regardless of where they are, to meet their needs - as opposed to forcing them into a square box with a square peg, when they'll never fit there."

Chapa LaVia is working with Voices and other organizations to examine additional after-school options that could be implemented in the state. She adds they are encouraging schools, parents and community and business leaders to build partnerships that can increase investments in after-school programs.

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