Afterschool Focus: Academic Enrichment in Afterschool

In this issue of Illinois Quality Afterschool Quarterly, we are taking a fresh look at academic enrichment in afterschool. As Illinois begins implementing its state plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a strong focus will be on improving student academic outcomes. Academic indicators (English language arts, math, science, English language proficiency, graduation, proficiency and growth in core content areas) make up 75% of Illinois accountability measures.1 For 21st CCLC programs, improving student achievement in core academic areas remains a key component of the program.2 Supporting student academic achievement doesn’t mean your program has to look like a classroom, however. We encourage you and your team to discover innovative ways for students to explore and master core academic content in your 21st CCLC. Below are some strategies for offering academic enrichment that also promote long-term development and success for all students.

Connecting to School-Improvement Efforts

We encourage afterschool practitioners to connect all aspects of afterschool programming, including academic enrichment, to district- and school-improvement efforts. This critical piece lays the foundation for stronger connections with school-day staff, support from stakeholders at local schools, and ultimately sustainability for your afterschool program. Two key pieces to consider in the area of school improvement are the Illinois state plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act and the Illinois Report Card. Both can inform your afterschool work, and both can be vehicles through which you show school leaders how your program can support school-improvement goals.

Become familiar with ESSA. The implementation of ESSA affects your program in multiple ways. First, there are the requirements for 21st CCLC programs, which include a greater emphasis on linking afterschool to school-day outcomes and helping students meet challenging state academic standards. In the area of academic enrichment, grantees are expected to meet the needs of student subgroups, including focusing on how activities are expected to improve student academic achievement. This also includes linking to the Illinois Learning Standards as well as overall student success.3 As noted above, student academic outcomes are also a key part of the Illinois accountability measures for districts and schools.

ACT Now Illinois has several ESSA resources, including links to state-specific information. Resources include an ESSA one pager on how afterschool programs can help districts meet ESSA requirements and outreach materials for communicating about your afterschool program. We encourage you to explore these resources with your afterschool team so that you can become familiar with the Illinois ESSA state plan and reflect on your program’s role in school success.

Explore the Illinois Report Card. As the name suggests, Illinois Report Card hosts the Illinois State Board of Education’s report card showing how each Illinois school, district, and the state is performing on a range of educational goals. The site provides school data, including academic performance, school environment, educators, students, and highlights provided by principals. These data can inform your 21st CCLC team’s understanding of the schools where your sites are located and also guide program goals and activity offerings.

The Illinois Report Card also provides an opportunity to raise awareness about your 21st CCLC program. Under the “School Highlights” tab, each school’s report card has a section on programs and activities. If your 21st CCLC program is not listed here for the schools your students attend, work with school administrators to get your program included. This will help raise awareness of your 21st CCLC and also provide an opportunity to discuss afterschool programming with school administrators.

Strategies for Engaging Academic Enrichment Activities

Encourage small-group activities and collaboration. Collaboration and the opportunity to talk through academic work offer different ways for students to learn and tackle difficult concepts in all subject areas. To ensure students’ chatter remains productive, provide guidance and clear expectations to students when they work in groups. Be sure to use a variety of student-grouping configurations as well.4

Connect to the real world. Real-world connections can help motivate students by allowing them to see the reason to do an activity or project instead of simply viewing it as an assignment. As you plan activities for your students, consider their interests or experiences (see more about this in the section on getting student input below). Connections can also happen through ties to community issues or by inviting students to address a problem in their community. Finally, real-world connections also mean thinking about the future. Regardless of your students’ ages, challenge your afterschool team to connect activities to local community and career opportunities.5

Get student input. Student engagement is a key condition to learning, and getting student input can support that engagement. Student input can take a variety of forms: some programs survey students at the beginning of the semester to get feedback on what activities to offer. Others let students select from a menu of activities on different days or enroll in different “camps” or courses that last a few weeks. Sites that serve older students can also let students take leadership roles, helping plan activities or even leading them.6

Remember quality. Even while you are offering fun activities, there are some key components to ensuring that programming supports the mastery of core academic concepts. These include setting goals for your program and your activities, linking activities to the school day, and aligning them with the Illinois State Learning Standards. These practices will provide a strong foundation as you explore approaches to academic enrichment.7

Making It Happen

Changes in program practices take time to implement. Here are some ways you can transition your program to more engaging academic activities.

Start small. Are you looking to switch up your literacy activities? You don’t need to have your students perform a full-blown theater production the first time they try story dramatizations. Instead, ask students to select a favorite book, assign parts, give students time to rehearse their lines, and perform the story that week. From there, you and your students can work your way to a more elaborate performance. If you want to offer more hands-on math activities, ask program staff to aim for one activity each week with the goal of increasing the frequency of this type of programming. If your team wants to engage students in longer projects, start with something that lasts 1 or 2 weeks, and then build from there.

Provide support for your staff. Transitioning from worksheets and computer games to hands-on, student-centered activities can seem intimidating to afterschool practitioners who do not have experience in this area. Be sure to communicate clear expectations to staff and get their feedback on areas where they need support. Support might include professional development on offering hands-on academic enrichment activities or project-based learning. Less-experienced staff may need tools and resources for planning activities and aligning them with state standards or support in classroom management as students move from seat work to group work.

Leverage partnerships. Community partnerships, a requirement of the 21st CCLC program, are a great resource for offering engaging activities that teach and reinforce academic concepts. Would the local natural history museum offer hands-on science activities? Can the neighborhood arts organization provide acting classes to help students practice key literacy skills, like fluency? Communication is key to making these partnerships work. Work with your partners to ensure that their activities have learning goals and that stakeholders have a clear understanding of what the activities will entail.


Illinois State Board of Education. (2017a.) 21st Century Community Learning Centers: ISBE administrative updates. Presentation given at Illinois Quality Afterschool 2017 Fall Workshop, Springfield, IL. Retrieved from

Illinois State Board of Education. (2017b.) Illinois State Board of Education state template for the Consolidated State Plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Springfield, IL: 2017. Retrieved 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


1 Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), 2017a; ISBE, 2017b.

2 ISBE, 2017b.

3 ISBE, 2017a.

4 Jordan, C., Parker, J., Donnelly, D., Rudo, Z., Eds., 2009, p. 48.

5 Jordan, C., Parker, J., Donnelly, D., Rudo, Z., Eds., 2009., 44.

6 Jordan, C., Parker, J., Donnelly, D., Rudo, Z., Eds., 2009., p. 44

7 Jordan, C., Parker, J., Donnelly, D., Rudo, Z., Eds., 2009, 24, 36.