Newswise — Are idle hands the devil's workshop? Grandmas thought so, and now so do educational researchers.

"If you want to improve a child's odds of graduation and going to college — especially disadvantaged youth -- encourage and engage them in extracurricular activities," said Dr. Jason M. Smith, assistant professor of sociology at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).

"Consistent research data over the last 30 or so years shows that involvement in extracurricular activities helps in lowering the high school dropout rate, raises grades and gives students better odds of graduating from high school and attending college," said Smith. "Extracurriculars have many positive effects on students, so research is now turning to understanding how and why extracurriculars have these effects."

He notes that extracurriculars integrate students into their schools, surround them with achievement-oriented peers and adults, and give them skills and habits that improve their educational performance. He also notes that teen pregnancy, substance abuse, and acts of delinquency are behaviors that are often associated with school failure, but which are also decreased through extracurricular participation.

Smith, recently submitted the chapter "Between the Lines, On the Stage, and In the Club: Additional Ways Students Find to Overcome Disadvantage Through School," to Child Poverty in America Today.

The publication is a four-volume set that reveals, analyzes, and assesses the effects of an inadequate family income on American children. Child Poverty, is the result of a 2004 study by the Annie E. Casey, Ford, and Rockefeller Foundations. The study reported that a large number of American families are currently faring poorly in their struggle to provide for themselves. "The set covers a lot of ground, so if someone really wants to understand the scope of child poverty in this country, this would be an excellent resource."

Smith said data analyzed from the most recent National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS) of over 12,000 high school students show a remarkable level of consistency: Across the board high school graduation rates and rates of attendance in postsecondary education are nearly always higher for those who participated in extracurricular activities than for those who do not participate at all. Smith focused specifically on kids in "high poverty schools," where at least half the students are on free or reduced-price lunch.

He found that in these schools white students not involved in extracurricular activities graduate 70 percent of the time, while the graduation rate for those participating in activities is more than 87 percent. For black students, who don't engage in extracurricular activities, the graduation rate is about 62 percent; but for those who do participate in extracurriculars, the graduation rate is near 79 percent. The rate for hispanic students not involved in activities is nearly 75 percent with about 82 percent of participants graduating.

Smith noted that for the various categories of activities, the graduation rates of all races participating in extracurricular activities were all measurably higher than non-participants. "The desire to play a sport, or be involved in the school play, or participate in a particular school club with one's friends may motivate a student to stay in school to continue those activities."

He said while educators agree extracurricular activities are now considered a must for a well-rounded education, school systems across the country are now faced with a new dilemma — they can no longer afford to offer free activities to students.

"This is actually a problem I try to address in the chapter," said Smith. "These activities were free at my high school. ... Whether it was baseball or band, anyone could participate and the cost was paid by the school system."

Smith noted there were few exceptions, such as student paying for their own sports shoes or renting band instruments.

"I find this pay-to-play situation to be very problematic, and another instance of how social class is such a salient factor in America," he said. "We like to think we broke free of the social class systems of Europe, and that we are a purely egalitarian and meritocratic society. The fact is the socioeconomic status (SES) a person is born into is probably the single most important factor in determining all sorts of outcomes.

"The problem to me starts with how schools are funded in this country — primarily through local property taxes," Smith said. "This creates a wildly inequitable funding situation across school districts, one that has been ruled unconstitutional in several states, including my native state of Ohio.

"How this applies to extracurriculars is that when an increase in funding is needed and not obtained (through a failed tax increase, for example), the first thing to be cut is these types of activities, or school officials adopt a pay-to-play policy," Smith explained. "Who is this going to affect disproportionately? More than anyone else it is likely to be lower SES kids who attend schools in poorer areas with the most frequent funding shortages."

Smith added, even if students attend schools in more middle-income areas, the pay-to-play policy leaves parents and kids in a situation where they cannot afford to participate.

The educational research is clear, he said, "Extracurricular activities play an important role in integrating students into their school, keeping them enrolled as opposed to dropping out. Extracurricular programs clearly have benefits for students in high-poverty schools; policymakers must endeavor to preserve these benefits," Smith said.

A former high school teacher, Smith earned his doctorate in sociology and demography, specializing in the sociology of education from Pennsylvania State University. He has a minor concentration in quantitative methods.

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