California may be ranked nearly last in the nation when it comes to how much it spends in the classroom, but it does lead the nation in funding for after-school programs.
As a state, California invests three times more than the other 49 states, according to a recent report by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a nonprofit crime prevention organization.
The Central Valley lags slightly behind other counties when it comes to state and federally funded afterschool programs at low-income schools, the study said.
Almost 200 low-income schools in the Central Valley don't have the money for after-school programs, the study said.
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Only 5 to 11 percent of students in the Central Valley are served by these programs, according to a 2008 report from the Central Valley Afterschool Foundation.
Juveniles are more likely to commit violent crimes between 3 and 4 p.m., according to Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, so if students are involved in after-school programs, they are less likely to commit crimes.
In Merced County, more than half the schools have after-school programs, the study said.
There are 87 after-school programs which serve 3,989 students.
Merced fares better than Fresno and San Joaquin County, which were the two Central Valley counties grouped as the 10 highest-need counties in the state.
Fresno County has 53 low-income schools that have no money for after-school programs, and San Joaquin County has 56 schools without funding.
The study showed that out of 82 of Merced County's low-income schools, meaning schools with at least 40 percent of students receiving free and reduced lunch, 34 don't have funding for after-school programs.
"Investing in after-school programs is smarter and cheaper than building more prisons," said Larry Morse II, Merced County district attorney, in a news release. "It just makes sense to keep kids on track for productive, crime-free lives."
Lindsay Callahan, executive director of Central Valley Afterschool Foundation, said that Fresno, Merced and King's counties' English Language Learner students, who attended after-school programs, improved their language skills dramatically.
"Three hours of after-school programming represents additional time to practice English," Callahan said. "Immersion is really important, and having a safe space to practice is really important."
The same report also showed that students in these programs improved their attendance by 14 days.
If students are motivated to attend to their after-school program, Callahan said, then they're more likely to attend school for the full day.
Test scores for those three counties also improved.
Students in these programs scoring far below basic, made a 60 percent jump in their tests scores during the 2006-2007 school year, Callahan said
She said she couldn't pinpoint the exact reason scores improved, but she said it could have something to do with how information was presented during after-school programs.
Curriculum generally reflects what is being taught in class, but students may learn by creating projects or through experiential learning, she said.
For example, students may get to conduct science experiments in after-school programs, where in class they may just be absorbing concepts, Callahan said.
Unfortunately, these are courses schools don't have time for these days, she added.
Reporter Jamie Oppenheim can be reached at (209)385-4207 or firstname.lastname@example.org.