Help Keep the ‘Lights On Afterschool’ in Nebraska’s after-school programs

October 20, 2023 3:00 am

Kids make the “Lights On” symbol during a community celebration of Lights On Afterschool, hosted by the North Platte Kids Klub at Jefferson Elementary School. (Carrie Lienemann/North Platte Kids Klub.)

Young people working in teams. Solving STEM challenges. Running and playing outside, exploring nature. Making art. Having new experiences with new friends. Growing and preparing food. Discovering passions, dreaming about their future.

All are key aspects of childhood all Nebraska youth deserve.

And every day, in both urban and rural communities across our state, after-school programs provide thousands of Nebraska youths just such opportunities for learning and growth.  School-based and community-powered, after-school (and summer) programs provide hands-on learning opportunities complementing school day instruction in ways that excite, engage and inspire the next generation.

These experiences provide critical support to working parents, who need to know that their children are safe and engaged as they close out their workdays.  After-school programs also create the nurturing places all Nebraska communities require to remain welcoming places for the families and businesses we need to attract and retain so we can continue to grow our economy and quality of life for all Nebraskans.

Thursday Oct. 26 is Lights on Afterschool Day, a national celebration of the important role after-school programs play in communities across our nation.  On Oct. 6 Gov. Jim Pillen recognized Lights On Afterschool with a proclamationhighlighting the benefits Nebraska receives via these programs.

Children enjoying hands-on learning experiences at the Luminarium during Omaha’s Lights On Afterschool program. (Cary Mohiuddin/Collective for Youth)

True to form, Nebraskans didn’t wait for the national start to kick off our Lights on Afterschool events.  Celebrations started last week with a combination early Lights On/Halloween celebration at Jefferson Elementary in North Platte on Oct. 13 before moving east to Omaha on Oct. 14 with a citywide celebration at the brand-new Luminarium in RiverFront Park.  Many more celebrations are planned statewide over the next two weeks.

Importantly, this year’s celebration marks the 20th anniversary of the Nebraska Department of Education’s administration of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, a federal grant program supporting high quality after-school (and summer) programs that has grown to serve 143 Nebraska sites. NDE 21st CCLC programs have provided tens of thousands of hours of engaging, enriching programming to tens of thousands of youths in underserved communities across our state, through safe, structured opportunities for hands-on STEM learning, field trips, cooking classes and many, many more activities, facilitated by professional staff and community volunteers.

We know through our professional work that high-quality after-school and summer programs play a crucial role in helping provide youths with additional opportunities for learning and the healthy growth and development all Nebraska students need. These programs complement but don’t duplicate the school day learning and provide youth with hands-on, small group, experiential-rich learning opportunities that are too often not available during the school day. To see what these programs look like in one community, Grand Island, we encourage you to watch the following video, STEM Learning on Wheels, capturing an example of youth imagination and creativity unleashed by a dynamic after-school program.

Dr. Brain Maher, Nebraska’s current commissioner of education, noted the value of after-school programs when welcoming attendees to September’s GetConnected 2023, stating that the learning taking place in after-school and summer programs is just as important as the learning that takes place during the school day. For children’s growing brains and bodies, where and when learning takes place is irrelevant. What’s important is that youths are supported by caring adults and provided with experiences that support their healthy growth. After-school and summer programs can be the hands-on, experiential learning that excites, engages and inspires Nebraska youths to try new things, make friends and engage in new activities that may help chart a life course.

Beyond School Bells, a program of the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, works to build public-private partnerships to support the development of high quality, cost-effective and locally sustainable after-school and summer programs in communities across our state. While informal education programs have long been a crucial part of every community’s youth development system, we believe that the disrupted learning of the COVID pandemic will make the role of after-school and summer programs even more important both now and in the future.

Looking into the future, we see these programs expanding to every Nebraska community, providing all our youth with vital opportunities for additional learning and growth.  For Nebraska the benefits are multifaceted and substantial – high quality after-school and summer programs help students reach their full potential, support working parents and ultimately help communities grow and prosper. We invite you to join with us in celebrating Lights on Afterschool in your community.

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Doug Christensen
Doug Christensen

Doug Christensen has spent 57 years as a leader in education in two states. He is emeritus commissioner of education and emeritus professor of leadership at Doane University. He has served leadership roles at the national and state levels. He officially retired July 1, 2022.

Jeff Cole
Jeff Cole

Jeff Cole is the network lead for Beyond School Bells, Nebraska’s statewide after-school network and a program of the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation.