Afterschool Focus: 21st CCLCs as a Critical Component of School Improvement

High-quality 21st CCLC programs are more than homework help or aftercare programs. They are a key component in supporting student achievement, which also makes them an integral part of school improvement. Seasoned afterschool leaders know this. But do your district and school leaders know this? More important, are they involving your 21st CCLC in school improvement plans?

To assess and inform school improvement efforts, the Illinois State Board of Education uses the 5Essentials Survey, a diagnostic tool developed by researchers at the University of Chicago. The tool is organized around the five indicators listed below, and researchers have found that schools that are strong on at least three of the 5Essentials are 10 times more likely to improve student outcomes.1


  • Effective Leaders: The principal works with teachers to implement a clear and strategic vision for school success.
  • Collaborative Teachers: The staff is committed to the school, receives strong professional development, and works together to improve the school.
  • Involved Families: The entire school staff builds strong relationships with families and communities to support learning.
  • Supportive Environment: The school is safe and orderly. Teachers have high expectations for students. Students are supported by their teachers and peers.
  • Ambitious Instruction: Classes are academically demanding and engage students by emphasizing the application of knowledge.2

 In this issue of Illinois Quality Afterschool Quarterly, we explore how 21st CCLC programs can support the 5Essentials and play a more integral role in school improvement. 

Effective Leaders

Fostering effective school leadership requires the alignment of school-day and afterschool visions. If your afterschool sites all have unique vision statements, make sure they align-in both content and language-with those of the schools that they serve. If you have a program-wide vision, do your best to incorporate some of the key points from the vision statements of the schools you serve.

Effective leadership also depends on close relationships among afterschool and school-day staff. Begin by making sure that the school principal and other administrators know you, your team, your program, and how your program supports their schools. Relationships are important at all levels in the district and school: ask high-level district or school staff to serve on your advisory council, while also encouraging site coordinators and instructors to take the initiative to develop relationships with principals, teachers, and other staff. If members of your staff are just beginning their careers in afterschool, encourage them to see themselves as equals to their school-day colleagues while providing opportunities for them to develop the necessary skills to communicate professionally and foster positive relationships. 

Collaborative Teachers

Afterschool programs can encourage collaboration by linking enrichment activities with school-day instruction. This begins with involving teachers in afterschool curriculum development, especially if your 21st CCLC is a community-based organization or has few teachers on staff. There are several ways that you can link to school-day instruction. For example, one 21st CCLC program worked closely with the school-day teachers to support science instruction. During the school day, instruction focused on vocabulary, content-area comprehension, and related cognitive goals. Afterschool activities focused on hands-on projects that enabled students to use basic scientific principles, test hypotheses, and conduct experiments.3 The sense of continuity and engaging activities were the result of close collaboration between afterschool and school-day staff.

Ongoing communication about program activities and student progress is essential to collaboration. This can range from informal conversations to structured meetings and status reports. For example, if a student in your afterschool program is struggling with a behavior or academic issue, schedule a conference with his or her teacher to identify ways to collaboratively support the student. Communication tools like homework logs and a survey of teacher programming needs can also promote collaboration. 

Finally, to help school-day teachers understand the purpose of the afterschool program, consider inviting them to participate in afterschool professional development. Similarly, afterschool leaders can ask that their staff participate in school-day professional development activities to understand instructional issues and identify ways to align afterschool programming with the school day.

Involved Families

Afterschool programs offer a strong-and often unrealized-potential to strengthen relationships between families and schools. Afterschool programs with high rates of family participation create a welcoming environment and use both formal and informal communication to build trusting relationships with parents over time. Strategies include offering a variety of ways for families to get involved, including volunteer opportunities and classes that parents can take with their students. (See past issues of Illinois Quality Afterschool Quarterly and archived family engagement webinars to learn more about these strategies.)

You can help support family engagement at the school level by co-hosting events. For example, the Illinois Quality Afterschool team recently visited a 21st CCLC site that partnered with the school in hosting report card pickup night. Students who were in the 21st CCLC served as volunteers, greeting parents as they arrived and escorting them to the appropriate classroom for report card pickup. Other schools have scheduled open houses and other events on the same night as 21st CCLC events, knowing that a high turnout at an afterschool event can boost attendance at school events. Again, communication is key. If you have a high rate of family engagement, make sure school and district leaders know about it.

Supportive Environments

Fostering a supportive environment in both afterschool and school depends on setting and communicating high expectations. Supportive afterschool programs have clear discipline policies and share those procedures with students. Program leaders also ensure that staff understand their program’s discipline policy and how to implement it. Just as they do for academic enrichment, 21st CCLCs communicate and collaborate with school-day staff on student behavior and discipline issues. This can include aligning your discipline policy with the school’s and working with school-day staff to provide consistency and support for students experiencing behavior challenges. Grantees have sometimes provided anecdotal examples of how their afterschool programs provide an environment in which students can improve behavioral issues. As students develop social-emotional skills and strategies in the afterschool program, they are sometimes able to apply them during the school day as well. Similarly, some students have reported efforts to engage in more positive behavior during the school day so that they don’t do anything to jeopardize their chances of attending afterschool.

Ambitious Instruction

A positive environment is not limited to discipline and behavior. It also includes high overall expectations for students and academically demanding activities-the backbone of a high-quality afterschool program. A 21st CCLC can share these expectations in a variety of ways: an academic focus like STEM or the arts, where students develop skills and confidence in a specific content area; college and career readiness, where students begin to imagine how they might be successful after their K-12 education is complete; or service learning, where students discover the satisfaction of making a contribution to their community. Whatever your focus, set and communicate high expectations for your students and then provide the support and guidance so they can achieve them.  

Next Steps

Reflect. Spend some time with your team reflecting on ways your 21st CCLC program already aligns with the 5Essentials. 

Be intentional. Of the 5Essentials and strategies listed above, choose a few key items on which to focus: fostering closer relationships with one or two key leaders, asking to have 21st CCLC leadership involved in school improvement planning or a specific committee, or identifying one of the 5Essentials where your program is having an impact and exploring ways to build on that success with school-day staff.

Be persistent. If a school administrator is not immediately responsive to your efforts to become more involved, don’t be discouraged. It may take time for him or her to see your 21st CCLC as an integral part of school improvement instead of simply an extra program. At a recent Illinois Quality Afterschool workshop, one seasoned expanded-learning professional shared this strategy for promoting her program to a busy and seemingly disinterested principal: every Friday afternoon, after the principal had left for the day, the afterschool leader left the principal a short voicemail message describing a recent afterschool success and how it supported the school vision. She made sure the messages were short but substantive. Soon, she heard the principal sharing the afterschool successes with high-level stakeholders, and her program began gaining support.

Revise and repeat. After a few months, assess your progress on your goals and revise or set new goals as appropriate.


1 Illinois State Board of Education, 2016.

2 UChicagoImpact, 2016.

3 Jordan, C., Parker, J., Donnelly, D., Rudo, Z., Eds., 2009. 


Illinois State Board of Education. (2016). Illinois 5Essentials Survey: Organizing Schools for Improvement. Springfield, IL: Author. Available from

Jordan, C., Parker, J., Donnelly, D., Rudo, Z. (Eds.). (2009). A practitioner’s guide: Building and managing quality afterschool programs. Austin, TX: SEDL. Available from

UChicagoImpact. (2016). 5Essentials. Chicago, IL: Author: Available from