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Can after school programs effect physical fitness outcomes?

Jumping into action
Jumping into action

Can after school programs effect physical fitness outcomes?

Students participating in after school exercise programs increase fitness by 10 percent, say researchers from The John W. Gardner Center.

By Kara Dukakis, Ilana Horwitz and Rebecca London

The authors are staff of the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University: Kara Dukakis, associate director; Rebecca London, Ph.D., senior researcher; Ilana Horwitz, policy analyst.

The John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University recently completed a two-year project with community partners in Redwood City and the California School Boards Association that focused on the extent to which participation in community-run after-school programs is associated with youth physical fitness outcomes. The project was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Salud America! initiative, focused on increasing healthy behaviors and lowering rates of obesity among Latino youth, and used the JGC’s Youth Data Archive, an integrated data system that includes administrative data from public and nonprofit agencies. This research occurred in tandem with the launch of a Redwood City-based community wellness initiative, which aligns with the federal Let’s Move! campaign.

JGC’s study linked individual-level data from the Redwood City School District and Sequoia Union High School District, the city of Redwood City, and other after-school providers to address the following questions:

1) What is the extent of participation in primarily fitness-focused and other types of after-school programs among different student groups?
2) What are the effects of participation on students’ physical fitness pathways?

The study followed a cohort of fifth- and seventh-grade students and examined whether participating in after-school programs over two years increased the likelihood that a student was physically fit. Students were considered “physically fit” if they passed five of six components of the California Physical Fitness Test. The analysis included seven after-school program providers, including some with an explicit fitness focus and others without, as well as some that offered a combination of fitness and other enrichment activities. Findings support the notion that community-led, fitness-focused after-school programs can help students to maintain or improve their fitness levels:

Two-thirds (64 percent) of students in fifth to seventh grades and half (49 percent) of students in seventh to ninth grades participated in at least one after-school program. Latino students and those who were physically unfit were less likely to participate in primarily fitness-focused programs, but these groups were almost equally likely to participate in other enrichment programs.

After controlling for background characteristics, including initial fitness status, participation in primarily fitness-focused programs was associated with a 10 percent increase in the likelihood of being physically fit. Larger effects were found for students who participated in fitness programs in both years and those who were initially unfit, male and non-Latino. We did not find any effect of participating in other enrichment programs on fitness status.

This study relates to prior JGC work that used the same individual-level school data and demonstrated the link between physical fitness and academic achievement. Students who were consistently physically fit had higher California Standards Test scores than those who were consistently unfit, and these differences persisted over time.

Policy implications from both of these studies include:

    * Better understand the problem: For example, encourage or require physical fitness testing for younger students and partner with agencies serving preschoolers to ensure coordinated efforts.
    * Use existing resources as possible: For example, amend the California Department of Education’s After School Education and Safety Program funding requirements to delineate the amount and types of physical activity that students engage in after school.
    * Address equity issues: For example, work with youth sports leagues to hold practices on school sites and waive or reduce entrance fees for low-income kids.
    * Provide additional outreach to students from typically underserved populations for participation in fitness programs.
    * Use overlapping solutions to tackle both fitness and academic issues.

The John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities
The John W. Gardner Center partners with communities to develop leadership, conduct research and effect change to improve the lives of youth. The Center’s unique approach encourages community partners to drive the process; bridges the gap between research, practice and policy; and ultimately seeks to produce actionable findings that inform both the community at hand and the broader field of youth development.

The Salud America! project is an example of JGC’s work in the priority area of health and wellness. Another key area of concentration is community schools, which JGC supports through research and capacity building. Community schools are both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources; their integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development and community engagement aims to support student success, stronger families and healthier communities. The following examples highlight JGC’s work in this area.

Early Childhood Education-Community Schools Linkages Project: JGC’s national community schools work includes the Early Childhood Education and Community Schools Linkages Project. The goal of JGC’s study is to examine how three regions nationwide are working to demonstrate that community schools can be vehicles for creating smooth and effective transitions from ECE programs to early elementary grades. The study also seeks to understand what conditions appear to facilitate or hinder continuity between ECE and elementary grades.

Community School Resource Initiative: JGC’s Bay Area community schools work includes the Community School Resource Initiative. JGC provided emerging and developing community schools with training and resources about effective practices and is continuing to engage the primary community school intermediaries in the Bay Area in a series of convenings.  Through these convenings JGC facilitates a learning community in which participants share tools and ideas, better understand respective areas of expertise and collaborate on concrete projects.

Redwood City Community Schools Evaluation: JGC’s local work includes a partnership with the Redwood City School District and its five community schools. Over the last three years, JGC has conducted longitudinal research focused on the effects of the community school approach. Findings indicate that family engagement is linked to improved student academic outcomes, particularly in math and for English language learners. This research was recently featured in a briefing and panel discussion at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. JGC also facilitated the district’s adoption of a logic model for its community schools using the Community Schools Evaluation Toolkit, which JGC created in partnership with the National Coalition for Community Schools.

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