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ExCEL After School Programs: San Francisco Unified School District


Spotlight 6.6.16

ExCEL After School Programs
San Francisco Unified School District

After school programs can keep kids safe and boost grades, test scores, and engagement in learning. Even better, students at greatest risk show the greatest gains, according to the Expanded Learning Collaborative (formerly called the Afterschool Alliance).
Approximately 21,000 students in 89 high-need elementary, middle and high schools participate in San Francisco’s ExCEL after school programs.
Mele Lau-Smith, Executive Director of ExCEL, said San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) provides training, support, and professional development for after school program managers and coordinators to ensure that “what they’re doing is complementary and an added value to the school day. The idea is that school and after school should be one seamless program.”

 ExCEL 1 

Principals select local community-based organizations to serve as lead agencies through a contract with SFUSD.  Lead agencies are identified through a Request for Qualifications process.

About 24 community-based organizations operate San Francisco’s ExCEL programs, which serve elementary, middle, and high school youth.
Lau-Smith said the program’s “theory of action” is that a “quality after school program with robust activities will result in positive outcomes” in areas such as social/emotional skills, engagement with school, and improved academic skills and performance.
ExCEL gives students “an extra three hours a day of time for opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have,” she said.
Each ExCEL program must meet grant-stipulated performance metrics, including enrollment and attendance. The programs share a common framework through which progress toward their goals can be measured. Outside evaluators use multiple data each year to determine which sites are meeting program performance goals, providing high quality services, and demonstrating benefits for participants.
Research suggests that one key to a successful after school program is an environment in which all students are physically and emotionally safe, which promotes a sense of belonging and facilitates positive relationships.

ExCEL evaluations show parents overwhelmingly perceive their child’s program as being safe. In addition, findings from the 2013-14 SFUSD California Healthy Kids Surveys indicate that ExCEL middle and high school youth consistently report moderately lower levels of verbal harassment than SFUSD as a whole.

 ExCEL 2

In its 2014-15 report, ExCEL program evaluator Public Profit, based in Oakland, said:

  • Participation in ExCEL is associated with an increase in days of school attended, decreased chronic absence rates, and increased grade point average scores. “Collectively, this suggests that ExCEL has a positive association with broader academic outcomes,” the evaluation said.
  • Nearly all youth report that the adults in the program are happy to see them and that their program has an adult who cares about them. Research shows opportunities to develop relationships with adults and peers can buffer youth from the negative impact of risk factors, such as poverty and violence.
  • Most youth report that adults in the program expect them to try hard to do their best (94%) and that the program challenges them in a good way (84%). Three-quarters report that the program has made them better at something they used to think was hard. Programs that provide engaging activities for youth can increase youth’s sense of mastery and accomplishment, according to research.
  • Students also agree that their after school program exposes them to new opportunities, skills, and experiences. A parent of a middle school student said ExCEL programs such as computer coding and 3-D art “have provided my son with opportunities to learn about technology and prepare him for the future jobs. Without this, we wouldn’t be able to afford these classes.”
  • About eight out of 10 students report that ExCEL helps them feel like a part of their school (83%) and has helped them to care about their school (82%).
  • Seventy-seven percent of youth report that their program helps them to like school, and 72% report that their program has helped them to learn good study skills.
  • Ninety percent of parents report that their child feels connected to their school because of the ExCEL program, and 87% report that the ExCEL program has better prepared their child for the next grade. Almost all parents (94%) with children in grades K-8 report that the program helps their child with homework.


Lau-Smith said she truly appreciates San Francisco USD’s “social justice approach” to education.  “I have a background in public health, so I’ve spent my career looking for ways to eliminate disparities. It’s been a privilege for me to be able to create a structure and provide a program that works toward this goal.”

For more information:

• The ExCEL Hub features program information, a calendar, evaluation documents and the latest news.
• The ExCEL website includes the program’s mission, a list of lead agencies, a list of school sites and more.
• The Expanded Learning Collaborative shares facts and research on the effectiveness of programs.