Afterschool is not an afterthought: Terry Peterson strives to keep momentum growing for the field

Two smiling girls stand at a table with craft supplies.
High-quality afterschool activities that support the school-day curriculum can help students put learning into action. Photo: Rick Smith

Colleagues in the field call him “Mr. Afterschool.” It’s a title Terry Peterson doesn’t take lightly.

As chair of the Afterschool Alliance, Peterson strives to promote expanded learning as a strategy for school reform — particularly for students from low-income schools and neighborhoods. His experience and expertise make him a sought-after speaker on the national lecture circuit.

As a teacher, school administrator, community organizer and policymaker, Peterson has spent his career working with students, parents, community groups and elected officials to increase children’s access to high-quality public education. And he’s convinced that better-quality afterschool and summer learning programs are essential components.

“Even when a school is performing well, the regular school day lacks sufficient time and opportunities to expose children and young people to the kind of academic, social and enrichment activities that will help them excel in school and in life,” he said.

“The only way schools have a shot at graduating a lot more students who are college- or career-ready is to provide more time, more people and more helping hands to get them there.

“That’s why afterschool and summer learning programs matter.”

Showing what’s possible

Peterson believes large-scale education reform is possible, and he has the experience to prove it.

He played a major role in the development and passage of a comprehensive reform package in South Carolina championed by then-Governor Richard W. Riley in the early 1990s.

Terry Peterson headshot.
Terry Peterson.

“As governor, he pulled together a coalition of business people, educators and parents to help support the effort across the state,” Peterson said. The combination of grassroots involvement and leadership was critical to the success, as was funding earmarked specifically to launch a broad array of well-planned initiatives that included early childhood programs, a statewide teacher-recruitment center and extra help for struggling students.

“Because of these reforms, SAT scores rose substantially, and enrollment in Advanced Placement courses increased by more than 250% overall — and more than 500% for African American students,” Peterson said.

The importance of community-school partnerships and the potential for large-scale initiatives positively affecting millions of students are embedded in the 21st Century Community Learning Center (21st CCLC) initiative that Peterson helped launch in 1994 at the U.S. Department of Education, where Riley was serving as secretary under then-President Bill Clinton.

The initiative, which has received more than $158 million in support from the Mott Foundation since 1996, has resulted in a proliferation of high-quality, extended-learning programs that are strengthening not only local schools and families, but also the communities in which they operate.

“I think the 21st Century Community Learning Centers are close to where we need to go in terms of identifying and addressing some of the concerns we have about closing the achievement gap for students in low-performing schools,” he said.

In the United States, children spend 75 to 80% of their waking hours out of school. Those hours, when too many kids are home alone, are the same hours when juvenile crime and victimization peak. High-quality afterschool and summer programs — the kinds of programs that are included in 21st CCLC — can leverage that time in innovative ways.

“It’s been very gratifying to see the proliferation of high-quality afterschool and summer programs that have been directly funded by or instigated by the 21st Century Community Learning Centers,” Peterson said.

Since the program’s inception, federal funding has grown from $1 million to more than $1 billion annually. Each year, the program directly serves more than 1.5 million struggling students in more than 11,000 sites across the country.

“The key to this success — and the reason it has continued to earn the support of multiple political administrations — is that it’s not just a grant program,” Peterson said.

“From the get-go, thanks to the Mott Foundation, schools and community organizations interested in applying for 21st Century Community Learning Centers funding have been attending bidder’s conferences and other regional, state and national seminars, where they learn how to design and deliver high-quality programs that are critical to student and family success.”

The 21st CCLC program has spurred the creation of 42 Mott-funded statewide afterschool networks, which soon will grow to almost all 50 states. The networks serve as an infrastructure for information exchange and quality-control.

“It’s not all we need, but it’s the critical foundation,” Peterson said. “In almost every state every year there are three times more applications for 21st Century Community Learning Center funding than there is grant money available. There’s more work to be done.”

Building support for expanded learning opportunities

Peterson credits his Peace Corps experience working with a summer leadership program for poor rural teens in Brazil as the underpinning for his educational advocacy work.

“Everyone working with that program was an activist — kids, parents, teachers. They understood they would never achieve democracy in their country without high-quality public education for every child,” he said.

“I began to internalize the belief that there are moral and ethical — as well as practical — reasons why every child should have access to the support they need in school, after school and in the summers to become a successful adult.”

Peterson returned to the United States and worked as a teacher and community organizer for five years. But the limitations of organizing ultimately proved frustrating.

A group of students watch their fellow student launch a rocket she created.
Fun and enriching afterschool and summer programs can help students understand complicated subjects. Photo: Rick Smith

“While working in the rural South, it dawned on me that people need more than organizing. They need training, policy support and funding. There are limits to what you can do one-on-one,” he said.

“I went back to school and earned a master’s and Ph.D. in educational research. From there, I became involved with a state-level education commission and realized how critical information — hard facts and data — can be in crafting policies and funding streams that help tens of thousands of children.”

That’s also why Peterson agreed to serve as editor of “Expanding Minds and Opportunities: Leveraging the Power of Afterschool and Summer Learning for Student Success.” The massive new compendium of studies, reports and commentaries on the best practices, potential and impact of expanded learning activities is used as a resource by thousands of individuals and communities looking for data to support and improve afterschool and summer programs.

“It’s done far better than we could have hoped,” Peterson said. “We’re seeing about 100 downloads a day, and almost 10,000 hard copies have been distributed. Its greatest impact appears to be in helping afterschool and summer programs make better connections with the regular school day and with policymakers — which are critical to the future of expanded learning.”

Keeping the momentum going

While Peterson says the compendium has helped to create a kind of infrastructure for innovation and is prompting a lot of idea sharing, he believes grooming new leadership is equally critical.

In response to that challenge, Peterson once again has partnered with Richard Riley, South Carolina’s Furman University, and the Mott Foundation, which provided $445,000 in start-up funding, to provide a 10-month policy fellowship focusing on afterschool and expanded learning.

“We’ve had two classes of fellows cycle through the training, and they are doing some incredible work. Now we’re working on a curriculum that will take afterschool leaders to the next level — a mix of classroom and field work that will polish their skills,” he said.

Peterson also is considering the publication of a second, smaller compendium that examines afterschool, summer and expanded learning on an international level.

“The idea of using a school as a community learning center for families is intriguing across cultures,” he said. “It can offer a way to bridge the divides in communities.”

In the end however, the fuel that drives Peterson’s efforts to increase the quality and reach of afterschool and summer programming is his fundamental belief that every young person, regardless of their financial or family situation, benefits from the mentoring and support of a caring community.

“It’s something every young person deserves — it makes you feel like you can do anything.”