New study defines quality afterschool programming in Massachusetts


November 18, 2005

WELLESLEY, MA – The National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) at the Wellesley Centers for Women recently completed work on a comprehensive, three-year study on afterschool programs in Massachusetts, in partnership with the Intercultural Center for Research in Education (INCRE). One of the first studies of this scope nationally, the Massachusetts Afterschool Research Study (MARS) stands as a primary opportunity for researchers to examine the relationships between program characteristics and indicators of program quality, and how these relate to youth development outcomes.

MARS aimed to identify the elements of program quality, features, and participation that contribute to positive outcomes for youth, so that funders, providers, advocates, and policy-makers are better prepared to expand the quality and availability of afterschool programs. The study was conducted in 78 afterschool programs sites across Massachusetts. Data for the study were collected from classroom teachers, afterschool teachers and staff, and from children and youth participating in afterschool programs.

Findings from the MARS Study point to several major considerations in designing and sustaining afterschool programs.

In the study, group size and staff-child ratios were highly related to program quality. Programs that were able to maintain smaller staff-child ratios and/or small group sizes for program activities were better able to deliver high quality experiences and promote higher youth engagement in activities. This finding was not related to program size or overall enrollment, however.

Staff and youth are most engaged in program environments that are perceived to be relaxed and flexible. Whatever the program goals, creating a comfortable, friendly, and welcoming environment is desirable for all involved.

The study asserts that decisions about staffing are important. Having at least some staff with strong educational backgrounds and appropriate training is key to program quality. A highly qualified program director can set the foundation for building a program that promotes staff and youth engagement, with strong general activities and homework assistance.

Findings indicate that partnerships with schools and families will support good outcomes for children and youth. Establishing sharing, supporting, sustaining, informing relationships with school principals, teachers, student support personnel, and families can have a measurable benefit on youth outcomes.

These findings build NIOST’s understanding of how to create and maintain afterschool programs that will help youth achieve a wide range of positive outcomes. Widely disseminated by the United Way with assistance from NIOST and INCRE, the results of the MARS study come at an opportune time in Massachusetts policy-making. This year, Massachusetts reorganized the Office of Child Care Services and other state offices to form the new Department of Early Education and Care. Soon after, a special Commission on After School and Out-of-School Time was established to make recommendations on how the state can better coordinate, expand, finance, and improve quality out-of-school time programming for children. NIOST will continue to encourage and advise how the work accomplished through MARS and its comprehensive findings can shape state policies and funding related to strengthening afterschool program opportunities for Massachusetts children and youth. NIOST believes that these experiences are essential to the healthy development of children and youth, who then can become effective and capable members of society.

The United Way of Massachusetts Bay collaborated with the Massachusetts Department of Education and the Massachusetts Office of Child Care Services to sponsor this three-year study which was conducted by NIOST and INCRE. A national leader in afterschool program research, consultation, training, and evaluation, NIOST has continued to be at the forefront of advances in the field, and has acted as a leader in many areas of out-of-school time policy development, increased quality standards, professional recognition, and community action. NIOST team members who worked on the MARS project were: Julie Dennehy, Georgia Hall, Beth Miller, and Joyce Shortt, co-director. A copy of the Executive Summary can be downloaded from the WCW website here.