Park and recreation agencies around the country are entering into the busy summer season. For some agencies, the blazing heat and endless sun of July means hiring more lifeguards to monitor cannonballs into swimming pools. For others, it means packed summer-camp buses and Friday field trips, or giant games of tag, touch football and four square. However, for most NRPA members, and almost every park and recreation agency — 90 percent, according to a recent NRPA study — summer means the start of robust out-of-school time (OST) programming.
OST programs focus on improving the well-being of children and youth — usually to improve their performance in the classroom, equip them with career-based training or improve their personal development — during the afterschool hours and summer months. Kids are more likely to go hungry during these periods because they no longer have access to meals at school, lack adult supervision because family members are working, and fall behind their classmates academically or forget material from the previous year — commonly known as summer “brain drain.” Even worse, the risk of exposure to the dangers of drugs, gangs and alcohol also increases during these periods.
The opportunities for self-improvement, summer enrichment and personal development for local youth come in many shapes and sizes. They differ from place to place and allow each community that offers OST programming to customize its offerings to meet the needs of the children. While the term “OST” may be relatively new to some NRPA members, some of the park and recreation offerings for kids when they are away from school should be relatively familiar: child care (before/afterschool and summer camps), environmental education, tutoring, healthy meals and mentoring, to name a handful.
Because OST programs touch on each of NRPA’s Three Pillars: Health and Wellness, Conservation, and Social Equity, the NRPA Public Policy Team is deeply invested in Congress’ work to shape OST programming. Earlier this year, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA emphasizes supplemental enrichment opportunities, similar to the OST programs provided by park and recreation agencies in communities around the nation. With a focus on enrichment that promotes well-rounded children, grants funded by ESSA will help park and recreation agencies close the summer hunger gap with millions of healthy meals, create opportunities for millions of kids to learn about nature and the great outdoors through environmental education, and provide thousands of hours of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and literacy tutoring to stop the summer brain drain.
Sadly, partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill has created a federal spending roadblock for OST programs like those run by park and recreation agencies. However, the NRPA Public Policy Team is working closely with federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Education, to ensure the needs of park and recreation agencies are met once Congress approves funding for supplemental OST programs. Right now, the U.S. Department of Education is in the midst of writing regulations that will shape the future of OST programs at park and recreation agencies around the country. These regulations, which are the result of expanding the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) program, will ensure that tutoring, personal development, environmental education and hands-on STEM learning at park and recreation agencies align with each state’s educational standards.
Research has shown during the past 20 years that kids who participate in environmental education programs develop skills that are important to critical thinking and problem solving — both of which will be necessary to prepare our youth for jobs in the 21st century. Furthermore, OST programs have been shown to improve students’ ability to keep up in the classroom once they return to school in the fall. This is especially true for low-income and disadvantaged students who are more likely to fall behind their peers or drop out of school altogether. OST programs run by park and recreation agencies are a testament to NRPA’s Social Equity Pillar. By ensuring that all kids, no matter their race, gender, class or family income, have access to quality education, nutritious meals, mentorship, guidance and supervision, park and recreation agencies are doing the rewarding work of levelling the playing field and preparing children for jobs of the future.
As the busy summer season at park and recreation agencies winds down and Congress continues with its truncated legislative session in Washington, D.C., because of the upcoming election cycle, rest assured that the Public Policy Team will continue to push for passage of reliable and dependable supplemental education funding that supports your OST programs. The OST work of park and recreation agencies around the county is critical to closing the achievement gap in the classroom, ending hunger during the summer months, preparing children for bright futures, and fostering kids’ interest in nature and the great outdoors.
Your quiet, yet important, work may seem benign, but it matters to the millions of children whose lives are changed from the OST programs you operate.
Oliver Spurgeon III is NRPA’s Government Affairs Manager.