South Carolina afterschool network forges bright futures for young people

Black female students wearing white lab coats and nitrile gloves use glass beakers to conduct biomedical research in a laboratory.
Young people conduct biomedical research through a summer internship program at Claflin University. Photo: South Carolina Afterschool Alliance

As a high school student, Elon Tullock studied antibiotic resistance and immunity with a university mentor who specializes in molecular bacteriology. Caleb Justin Dewees studied heart health with a cellular biology professor, researching the proteins, or biomarkers, that can offer early warning signs to people at risk of a heart attack. Imani Mack interned with chemistry professors to grow clusters of crystals — the kind that can be used to make glasses and optical tools. DeShawn Johnson programmed voice recognition commands in English and Shona for a humanoid robot. Such research may allow more people around the world to collaborate on robotics.

Tullock, Dewees, Mack and Johnson are all part of a pioneering summer internship program that connects students of color in grades 10 through 12 with faculty at Claflin University to conduct research on current issues in STEM. Created by Claflin in partnership with the South Carolina Afterschool Alliance, a Mott grantee, the Biomedical/Biomaterials Internship also incorporates entrepreneurial education, guest lectures by industry leaders and group discussions about social justice.

“Living in a rural area, students like me don’t have the opportunity to work with research mentors in a science lab,” Tullock said, describing her experience at a youth town hall convened by the Afterschool Alliance, a national organization that also receives grant support from Mott. “If every student receives the same opportunities as me, I can truly say that more students will enjoy STEM and actually want to pursue a job in a STEM field.”

A college aged Black female student pipettes a substance into a test tube at a makeshift laboratory set up in her home's living room for her internship during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Elon Tullock researched antibiotic resistance through her internship. Photo: South Carolina Afterschool Alliance

That combination — creating top-flight learning experiences and assuring that more students have access to them — is part of a big vision held by SCAA and its growing ecosystem of statewide partners. Together, they aim to bolster academic outcomes and empower students to recover from the pandemic, succeed and thrive.

“Many students live in underserved and underrepresented areas, without the resources they need to be successful,” said Zelda Waymer, president and CEO of SCAA. “There are academic disparities and gender gaps, as well as a lack of broadband, transportation and resources. What our afterschool programs and partners are trying to do is to support students to succeed and prepare them for college and career. Today, there are 1,400 afterschool programs across the state. We’re continually growing and innovating to do more.”

Innovation is in the South Carolina network’s DNA. Twenty years ago, alarming numbers of teens were incarcerated for status offences, like missing school. The late William Byars, Jr., a family court judge who had just become director of South Carolina’s Department of Juvenile Justice, knew there was a better way. Fortunately, he also knew Waymer. Sitting together in his office, they envisioned a solution. Rather than being penalized, young people who were struggling could be referred to a Teen After-School Center. TASCs would provide supportive settings that reconnected young people to learning through tutoring, mentoring, and college and career readiness programs.

Boys & Girls Clubs, churches and local community-based organizations came together to help SCAA and the Department of Juvenile Justice bring the idea to life. They grew the fledgling centers with technical assistance and seed funding. With support from the Department and the Legislative Black Caucus as a champion, South Carolina now has 45 TASCs that have diverted a total of 10,000 young people from incarceration.

With a growing roster of partners, SCAA also drove efforts to improve program quality. Based on decades of research, they knew that students in afterschool programs could realize significant academic and social-emotional gains, but only if participation was consistent and programs were high quality. So SCAA teamed up with afterschool educators to raise quality standards and infuse best practices into their programs, training and professional development. And it worked.

Thanks to these efforts, state legislators set aside $159,000 for the network to pilot a quality improvement system with 15 programs. When the pilot also succeeded, the legislature passed two resolutions recognizing SCAA and the role of afterschool in creating brighter futures for young people. It also encouraged the South Carolina Department of Education, Department of Social Services, and Education Oversight Committee to continue to support these programs. That set the stage for a $1.2 million state budget allocation in the 2019-20 fiscal year to expand and implement a statewide quality improvement system for afterschool.

Three Black students hone their presentation skills at the front of a lab room that has the periodic table hanging above a laboratory counter located behind them.
In addition to hands-on biomedical and biomaterials research, students study entrepreneurship and hone writing and presentation skills. Photo: South Carolina Afterschool Alliance

The results were evident. Between 2014 and 2020, South Carolina expanded quality programming and reduced the percentage of children who were alone and unsupervised after school from 18% to 12%. At the same time, programs earned extraordinarily high marks from parents: 97% were satisfied with their children’s afterschool program, according to the Afterschool Alliance’s America After 3PM survey. In 2020, the Alliance named South Carolina one of the nation’s Top 10 States for Afterschool.

Then, in 2021, a statewide evaluation of South Carolina’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers programs by the American Institutes for Research found that young people who regularly attend afterschool programs in the state saw academic and social-emotional gains. Teachers reported that most students improved their academic performance (69%), class participation (65%) and motivation to learn (60%).

“Achieving these kinds of results for young people and bringing them to scale across the country is exactly why the Mott Foundation has supported SCAA since its inception and funded afterschool quality and policy infrastructure in all 50 states,” said Gwynn Hughes, a senior program officer at the Foundation, which has provided nearly $2 million in grant funding in support of SCAA over two decades.

“This is a pivotal moment for education in our country,” Hughes continued. “Afterschool programs are connecting people and breaking down silos in ways that not only help youth recover, but also provide them with learning experiences they need to thrive in the future. South Carolina is a shining example of that.”

South Carolina’s strides in strengthening programs have played a huge role in helping kids and families throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early days, when state test scores predicted nearly seven of 10 students in grades 3-8 would not meet proficiency standards in English and math, TASCs and other afterschool and summer programs and internships became even more crucial.

“When the world was closed, we worked to support students and help parents get back to work,” said Waymer. “Programs that could remain open became frontline learning hubs. Then, when schools reopened, afterschool programs pivoted again to help students make up for missed learning time.”

Recognizing the role that afterschool and summer programs are playing in student recovery, Gov. Henry McMaster allocated $4 million in emergency funds toward these efforts, and South Carolina’s Department of Education, led by superintendent Molly Spearman, allocated $14.5 million. Today, SCAA is working with the governor’s office and education department to help ensure that funds received through the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan benefit young people most impacted by the pandemic. That’s essential. While nearly 100,000 kids currently participate in an afterschool program, over 300,000 more would enroll if a program were available.

There are stumbling blocks. Like almost everywhere across the country, South Carolina’s afterschool programs face severe staffing shortages. But the network is piloting a solution. With the University of South Carolina, they’re engaging nearly 8,000 college students across eight campuses to serve as instructors in local afterschool or summer programs. It’s an approach that generates multiple benefits. College students inject afterschool programs with much-needed help, gain practical teaching skills and earn credit hours for civic engagement. Kids in out-of-school-time programs get help catching up from a near-peer instructor. And the state gears up for the future, inspiring a new generation of educators and leaders.

The same can be said of the high school students participating in the internship program with Claflin.

“With this program, I built knowledge about the STEM field and pinpointed which career best fits me,” said Tullock. “Going into my junior and senior year, it was a lifesaver to get information about colleges and scholarships. Having the hands-on experience with real lab equipment and writing my first research paper brought me to love the sciences and actually want to pursue a career in the science field. It brought me to the decision to major in biology at an HBCU and become an anesthesiologist in the future.”