This week – April 22nd through 26th – marks Afterschool Professionals Appreciation Week, a time to recognize, appreciate, and advocate for those who work with children and youth in diverse school and community-based settings during out-of-school hours. These dedicated, skilled professionals do the hard work of creating safe and structured environments and relationships for students to grow, learn, explore, create, and thrive outside of school. They guide children and youth as they learn to take healthy risks, engage with academics and learn in ways that inspire, and develop their individual identities. The relationships that they build with children, families, and communities are nothing short of life-changing.

An estimated 7.8 million K-12 children in the United States, and nearly 200,000 in North Carolina, participate in afterschool programs each year. Nevertheless, for every child in an afterschool program in North Carolina, three more are waiting to get in. Every young person deserves quality afterschool experiences that positively impact their development, and it takes skilled professionals to create these experiences. In fact, research consistently demonstrates that it is afterschool staff that are the key to high-quality programs that deliver on the desired outcomes of afterschool programs.

Nevertheless, studies conducted by the Afterschool Alliance have shown us that in recent years, staffing is the most pressing concern facing afterschool providers and a barrier to programs being able to serve more students. The North Carolina Center for Afterschool Programs’ Landscape Analysis in Western North Carolina confirmed that these staffing challenges persist in our state, and are related to low pay, part-time hours, and increasingly, staff burnout. In a 2021 Afterschool Alliance survey, one program provider stated,

“Combatting staff burnout is a priority for us. We are doing as much as we can to be supportive, both financially and by providing emotional support for staff. Keeping full-time staff engaged and encouraged has been a challenge. Keeping good part-time staff engaged and focused has proven even more difficult.”

Difficulties hiring and retaining program staff have dire implications for program quality and for the mental health and well-being of students in programs. As one North Carolina afterschool provider stated, 

“Related to student mental health and wellbeing, I have kids who are in high school who come to the clubs because their mentor has been there since they were in kindergarten. So staff retention is how you keep kids engaged in your program all the way through till they graduate. When they’ve got a person – a mentor – it’s that relationship and that connection that keeps kids talking and allows us to intervene soon and provide resources.”

When burnout causes staff to leave, participants in out-of-school time (OST) programs lose out on the stable, nurturing relationships and mentorships that support student well-being, or are unable to form them in the first place.

Because of the critical role that afterschool professionals play in the lives of children, youth, and communities, we must step up to ensure our Afterschool Professionals are paid a livable, competitive wage that enables them to stay in the field long-term; have access to the supports that promote their wellbeing and economic advancement; and have the opportunity to develop their skills as afterschool professionals and advance in their careers. The Afterschool Alliance has developed a set of policy recommendations (along with an Afterschool and Summer Workforce Solutions Database with examples) to guide our effort to support professionals in the out-of-school time field. These recommendations are to:  

  1. Create the conditions that will provide the foundation for a good job by developing and enacting policies that pay staff a livable and competitive wage, and by investing in research that will provide critical information to identify gaps in services and help the field generate strategies and solutions to increase the appeal of the afterschool and summer learning workforce.
  2. Provide the supports that will help staff perform well and achieve economic stability. This might look like using mechanisms such as federal non-regulatory guidance, state RFPs, and technical assistance to promote and enhance allowable expenditures for staff wellbeing supports that help improve staff performance and positively affect their overall wellness. It also could include expanding existing and new federal and state initiatives around care worker, child care worker, and educator mental health and workforce supports to explicitly include school-age child care and afterschool staff, or replicating state-level initiatives on staff wellness supports and shared services agreements.
  3. Provide supports that will help staff advance and develop their skills. This could include ensuring that federal funding streams for afterschool and summer include sufficient state set-asides to provide funding for paid professional development and technical assistance that is relevant to afterschool and summer programming, including youth development, content-specific programming, organizational capacity, and licensing support.
  4. Take actions to ensure employees are empowered, engaged, and have agency and demonstrate to staff that their contributions and voices are valued and deserve to be uplifted and amplified. This could include establishing standard occupational codes for the afterschool field to be able to track and share data on the field as a whole, and/or applying and integrating findings from surveys and research studies on afterschool and summer learning, such as the Power of Us survey, America After 3PM, and provider surveys, to inform legislation, regulation, and policy.

Additionally, the National Afterschool Association, in partnership with the North Carolina Center for Afterschool Programs, will be releasing Job Quality Standards in 2024. These standards will provide a common structure for defining and discussing “good jobs” across a diverse set of stakeholders and perspectives, and will provide evidence demonstrating how job quality relates

to worker outcomes. The Standards outline effective practices that support afterschool workforce development – including recruitment and retention – and afterschool workforce stability by promoting high-quality, equitable jobs.
We have all come to accept and expect that our valuable and skilled Afterschool Professionals will continue to provide quality services for children and families with limited job quality themselves, asking them to endure part-time hours, low wages, and minimal benefits. This Afterschool Professionals Appreciation Week, in addition to reaching out to Afterschool Professionals to shower them with gratitude, I call on all folks who know, love, or rely upon an Afterschool Professional to show your appreciation by advocating for high-quality working conditions for the selfless individuals who keep North Carolina students safe, happy, and learning during out-of-school hours.

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