WATERLOO — C.A. Joseph’s parents work second shift, which means they aren’t able to pick him up after football practice, which ends around 4:30 p.m. on weekdays.
Instead, Joseph, 14, an eighth-grader at Waterloo Central Middle School, climbs on one of four activities buses, which take 80 to 100 students home from after-school sports, clubs and other activities.
“It helps us out a lot,” Joseph said.
Without the late bus, Joseph likely would just go home immediately after school and miss out on football and soccer, two sports he’s come to love. “It means a lot to me because it helps me get out my anger and be stronger. It helps me to focus on my school work,” he said.
The Waterloo Community School District is an urban district of about 11,000 students, more than half of whom are students of color and 65 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch. Waterloo is one of the only districts in the state that offers free school bus transportation to all secondary students following after-school activities.
Cedar Rapids and Iowa City school districts don’t operate activities buses, officials said. Des Moines schools offer a late bus for some middle schools and also partner with the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority to allow students free bus rides after 4:30 p.m., said Jason Allen, director of activities.
In a time when districts are trying to upgrade aging facilities, provide individualized education services and keep class sizes small, every penny is carefully considered. And extra bus routes can be expensive.
The Waterloo school district pays about $143,500 a year to provide activities busing from four middle schools and two high schools. Bus drivers take students to stops at or near their houses, trying to get all students home by 6 p.m.
student success rises with extracurriculars
The benefits of extracurricular activities for students are well-documented.
Research shows students who participate in such activities get higher grades, score better on standardized tests and, because they are more engaged with their peers, stick around to graduate.
A longitudinal study of nearly 25,000 U.S. students showed more than half of seniors who participated in extracurricular activities during the first half of their senior year in 1992 had no unexcused absences. This was compared to 36 percent of high school seniors who did not join a club, sport or other activity, the National Center for Education Statistics reported.
The share of seniors with a 3.0 or higher grade-point average was three times larger among extracurricular participants, and those students were more than twice as likely than non-participants to score in the highest quarter on a composite math and reading assessment, NCES reported.
Sixty-eight percent of seniors in an extracurricular activity expected to earn a college degree, compared to 48 percent of seniors who weren’t in extra activities.
“Any time a student is more involved in their school, the more likely they are to be a successful student,” said Mike Landers, assistant principal and activities director at Central Middle School, where 65 percent of students participate in at least one school-affiliated activity outside the school day.
Sixty percent of Waterloo high school students participated in school-sponsored extracurricular activities last year — more than three times higher than the 18 percent statewide rate, according to state data.
What’s the engagement gap?
On a warm September afternoon, Central students went to after-school activities including football, volleyball, cross-country, jazz band and esports — a club where members compete on video games.
But while the options of extracurricular activities abound, not all students can participate. U.S. students face an engagement gap linked to income, according to a 2014 article in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
“Money helps families to pay for piano and ballet lessons, for science camps and traveling soccer teams, and for music instruments and sports equipment,” authors Kaisa Snellman and Jennifer Silva write. “In addition, not worrying about ‘making ends meet’ every month allows parents to take time off from work to attend recitals and lacrosse games.”
Using National Center for Education Statistics data, Snellman and Silva found in the highest social-economic status group, 76 percent of high school seniors participated in at least one non-sport extracurricular activity, compared to 56 percent for students in the group with the lowest socio-economic status.
And the gap had widened from 8.7 percentage points in 1964 to 20 percentage points in 1986, researchers found.
About half of high socio-economic status students joined a sport in the senior year of 1986, while only 25 percent of their lower-income peers did so. The participation gap was nearly 25 percentage points in 1986, but it wasn’t as large a change — from 18.2 percent — in 1984.
Districts seek solutions to close the gap
Knowing the benefits of extracurricular participation, some school and parent groups are trying to shrink the engagement gap by removing cost barriers.
Iowa City fifth- and sixth-graders can participate in group band or orchestra lessons once a week after school, but they have to provide their own transportation from their elementary schools to South East or Northwest junior high schools.
Leaving work to pick up her aspiring musicians and coordinating with a six-family carpool was a “complete catastrophe,” recalled Tea Ho, who has three daughters who have attended Lincoln. Plus, as Ho looked around at the beginning orchestra group, she saw it did not reflect the diversity of the Iowa City school district.
Ho started talking with other parents and school officials and learned Yellow Cab of Iowa City already was providing some transportation for Iowa City students. She talked with Roger Bradley, Yellow Cab manager, and arranged group rides for students from Lincoln to the junior high.
The transportation costs $120 per year, per activity, for families who can afford to pay. For students who receive free or reduced-cost lunch, the Lincoln Parent-Teacher Organization pays up to 100 percent of the cost. At least two other Iowa City elementary schools have contacted Lincoln about their program.
“It’s just giving more kids more opportunities,” Ho said.
The Iowa City school district also provides free cab transportation to secondary students in the Alexander and Kirkwood attendance zones so they can participate in extracurricular activities. About a dozen students took advantage of these rides in August, officials said.
Finding creative ways to make the budget work
Many public school districts dealing with budget challenges are passing the cost of extracurricular activities on to families, requiring students who want to go out for a sport, music group or club to pay hundreds of dollars a year to participate.
Hearing about these costs may keep some students from trying out altogether. Who wants to make the varsity show choir or win a spot on the color guard only to have to drop out because of the price tag?
Students whose families can’t afford extracurricular activities may ask the school’s family advocate for financial support, which triggers behind-the-scenes aid. That’s what happens in the Linn-Mar Community School District in Marion, where the Champions for Kids fund distributed $19,500 last year to help 48 students pay for extracurricular activities.
“A counselor or a director can confidentially ask for a scholarship for a student who may have expressed need,” said Shelley Woods, Linn-Mar Foundation executive director.
The Iowa City City High show choir adjusts the $475 annual cost for students with free or reduced-cost lunch and will create payment plans to help families spread out the cost over the school year, explained Mary Mahaffa, the school’s music secretary. Donations to the program can help cover further shortfalls.
“We never turn students away if they cannot pay,” she said. “In addition, the team that auditions students does not have access to a student’s payment history, so that it doesn’t affect the selection process.”
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