Mar 15

Afterschool can help solve a national security crisis

U.S. Air Force photo by Kemberly Groue

We have a looming national security emergency, and it may not be the one that first comes to mind. 71 percent of Americans between 17 and 24 years of age— or 24 million of the 34 million young people in our country—are ineligible to serve in the United States military. The Heritage Foundation recently came out with a report, “The Looming National Security Crisis: Young Americans Unable to Serve in the Military,” outlining the causes of our military manpower shortage problem and demanding solutions. They point to health problems, lack of physical fitness, lack of education, drug use, and a criminal history as primary reasons for disqualification from the military.

One of the potential solutions noted in the report is for children to engage in out-of-school time programs. For instance, the report highlighted the Boys & Girls Club of America, describing the positive impact the program has had on students’ academic achievement and physical activity; and Junior ROTC and the Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts, for their work promoting civic engagement and citizenship. Authors of the report also argue that involvement in afterschool programs can help students avoid risky behaviors, including committing crimes. The report includes afterschool programs America SCORES and the U.S. Soccer Foundation’s Soccer for Success program, emphasizing the ability of programs to increase students’ physical activity and health. America SCORES—an afterschool program empowering students through a mix of sports, writing, creative expression, and service learning—showcases afterschool programs’ ability to provide a mix of physical activity, academic enrichment, and community engagement.

Our previous blog post also dug into the various reasons afterschool and summer learning programs are helping to support military readiness, sharing the research that demonstrates that students in afterschool stay active, make better decisions, and improve their grades and classroom behavior. For example, an evaluation of Girls on the Run found that there was a significant increase in the frequency of activity during the week and on the weekend among girls participating in the program. Additionally, studies have shown that close to 1 in 2 students who regularly attend a 21st Century Community Learning Center afterschool program improved their math and language arts grades, nearly 2 in 3 students improved their homework completion and class participation, and close to 3 in 5 students improved their behavior in class.

Not only is this a national problem, but it also has state-level implications. The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, in collaboration with the U.S. Army Public Health Center and the American Heart Association, recently released an alarming report demonstrating that military recruits from ten states in the South/Southeastern regions (AL, AR, FL, GA, LA, MS, NC, SC, TN, TX) are significantly less fit and/or more likely to become injured than recruits from other states. The results of the study suggest the pressing need for state-level buy-in and policies, particularly in the South, to promote physical activity for children.

The Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (HEPA) standards, which provide practical and comprehensive guidance for out-of-school-time programs to offer healthy and nutritious food and incorporate physical activity into programming, is just one example of afterschool and summer learning programs committing to promoting health and wellness and playing a role in mitigating the national security crisis. The standards include guidelines for staff training, curriculum, and program and environmental support. A report monitoring the adoption of the physical activity standards found that there are efforts underway to enact legislation adopting the standards in a handful of states, including Florida, South Carolina, and Texas—states included in the Citadel’s report. The report also noted that large national organizations, such as the Y-USA, National Recreation and Park Association, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, have incorporated large portions of the standards into programming.

At both the state and national level, we clearly have a national security crisis looming. Afterschool can begin to help solve it. Afterschool programs are one of the few opportunities for children to enhance their education, physical fitness, and safety all at once. We believe it, others believe it, and you should too.