Can Out-of-School Time Programs Decrease Dropout Rates?

July 05, 2016
Girl in library

There’s no question that 21st century Out-of-School Time (OST) programs for youth are being redefined as much more than simply showing up for study hall and playing games. This is in part thanks to the rising wave of the “third learning space” — places where students learn in ways not bound by the schedule of the school day or the limitations of the four classroom walls. Innovative OST programs incorporate digital learning in a variety of ways and can take place at community centers, museums, science centers, parks, or libraries — anywhere youth can connect with learning partners via the Internet.

Education experts are pointing to these supervised learning meet-ups, increasingly the result of school and community partnerships, as a critical way to engage high school students so that they are more likely to stay in school and achieve academic excellence. Increasingly, these programs are taking place after school, on weekends, and during the summer, and online learning is becoming a critical component in many OST programs.

Lower Dropout Rates with Effective OST Programs

A recent report by the Afterschool Alliance concludes that afterschool programs can be critical in ensuring an equal education opportunity for ELLs and other struggling students, and keep all students on track for high school graduation. The report, which surveyed 30,000 U.S. households, found that 77 percent of parents believe that afterschool programs reduce high school dropout rates. Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, said in U.S. News & World Report that afterschool programs can be a successful dropout prevention tool because they address three key indicators of students leaving school: attendance, behavior, and course completion.

In fact, research over the past decade shows that OST programs, when properly implemented, improve test scores and course completion, improve school-day attendance, and decrease dropout rates. So the question becomes: What makes for an effective OST program that keeps students on track for graduation? Online learning can provide some of the answers, in particular when incorporating active and personalized learning that meets each student at their learning level.

Afterschool programs can improve students’ personal, social, and academic skills.

Image Credit: Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., & Pachan, M. (2010).


Digital curriculum that incorporates personalized learning fits into the best practices established by The National Center for Quality Afterschool:

  • Motivate and engage all students

  • Connect to grade-level benchmarks, standards, and the school-day curriculum to increase achievement

  • Provide homework help

  • Develop thoughtful, fun, accessible activities

  • Expand learning opportunities with integrated technology

Boost the Effectiveness of OST Programs with Online Learning

Some of the most influential research pointing to the importance of OST programs in keeping at-risk students on track for graduation comes from the Harvard Family Research Project brief series, in conjunction with the National Conference of State Legislatures. One study in this series examines the effectiveness of expanded learning opportunities (ELOs), defined as “structured learning environments outside the traditional school day: before and after school; in summer; and through extended-day, -week, or -year programs.” The Harvard research found that effective ELOs, programs that promote self-confidence and achievement, result in higher rates of school attendance and lower dropout rates. 

One example of an effective ELO is the Quantum Opportunities Program (QOP), a year-round afterschool and summer program for at-risk students entering high school, which incorporates online learning. Both personal tutoring and digital curriculum were available to meet student needs in reading and mathematics. Students who participated in QOP throughout high school had a higher graduation rate (63% vs. 42%), went on to post-secondary education more often (42% versus 16%), and dropped out of school less often (23% versus 50%).

OST Program Results in Graduation Rate Increase

Faced with the challenge of keeping students on track to graduate on time, the City School District of Albany developed a dropout prevention program utilizing Apex Learning digital curriculum. Initially, the district launched the intervention program as part of a Saturday Academy for at-risk students in need of recovering credits. Students completed coursework, moving through the curriculum at their own pace, and taking additional time to review topics as necessary.

“Some students have a specific situation that prevents success in a traditional classroom,” says Tomas Vacanti, the program’s site coordinator. “[Online learning] allows us to tailor programs to address each individual’s instructional needs.”

Based on the success of the Saturday Academy, the district expanded the credit recovery program the following year to include afterschool study, resulting in higher graduation rates. Read the case study.

Engage All Students in Anytime, Anywhere Learning

Milton Chen, Senior Fellow, The George Lucas Educational Foundation, says that technology-driven “any time, any place, any path, any pace learning” is transforming afterschool and summer into the new American frontier for innovative learning.

“New types of learning opportunities, partnerships, and time and space configurations are emerging,” Chen says in the groundbreaking book, Expanding Minds and Opportunities: Leveraging the Power of Afterschool and Summer Learning for Student Success. “The wave of the future is evident in new and expanded options for learning after school, over the weekend, and during the summer through new school-family-community partnerships.”

It’s important to note that “interactive” isn’t enough when it comes to online curriculum that keeps students at all learning levels engaged and motivated to learn. There must be purposeful use of varied media — reading, listening, inquiring, experimenting, and discussing — so that it’s interesting, and even fun, to explore and understand new concepts.

Innovative OST Programs Keep Youth in School

It’s no surprise that students who are engaged in their studies are more likely to stay in school — but educators can’t take on this responsibility alone. Increasingly, partnerships between parents, schools, and the community at large are being forged to provide quality OST programs that integrate technology in creative ways. For example, Wide Angle Youth Media in Baltimore, Maryland, partners with local schools to engage 10- to 15-year-olds in an innovative OST program that challenges them to use digital tools as a means to explore issues impacting their communities.

The bottom line is that both in and out of school, youth need to be not just consumers of technology but active learners. Personalized digital curriculum is proven to keep students engaged in the process of learning, and give them the capabilities they need to navigate the digital world and all it has to offer. And, OST programs can be instrumental in keeping students on-track for success in school and beyond. 

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