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Here’s a hard lesson I’ve learned working in the after-school field for nearly three decades: Often, it’s not until report cards come that parents discover there’s a problem.

It’s easy for parents to assume that when their children reach middle school, they no longer need the structure and supports that an after-school program can provide. Too often, the assumption is proven wrong.

Policymakers and funders support after-school programs for our youngest children because they want to ensure they are safe and supervised after the school day ends. But middle school students are often overlooked; here in Florida counties can opt out of the child care subsidy after fifth grade.

And that is a time when many children most need help to stay on-track, academically as well as socially and emotionally.

Related: I can’t do this anymore: How four middle schoolers are struggling through the pandemic

Middle school after-school programs can be the difference between success in school and dropping out. That was true before the pandemic, and it’s even more true now when so many students are stuck at home. Here in Broward County, Florida, a recent audit found that some 8,000 kids aren’t in school physically or online.

Many of those students are middle school age, a time when they can easily just disappear and start to fail. Catching and addressing that in sixth or seventh grade is essential; any later and they may not be ready for high school — and many won’t graduate.

After-school programs can keep them on track.

Students this age live in a box, and until you get them outside the box, you can’t expand their minds.

In my program, we help athletes understand that if their grade-point averages drop, they won’t be able to play. We help students who are interested in college understand which courses they need to complete, and we show them how to apply.

We help make learning fun for those who are flailing, using gaming and group activities that the students enjoy. For middle schoolers, once they are engaged, we give them high school course material, so they are on track academically and confident in themselves by the time they get to high school.

A recent study commissioned by the Afterschool Alliance found that unmet demand for middle school after-school programs has risen sharply. The number of middle school students who are not in an after-school program, but whose parents would enroll them if a program were available, has grown from 4 million in 2014 to nearly 5 million today.

The pandemic is increasing that need, but not enough programs are available. And as demand is growing, participation has plummeted due to inadequate resources to support after-school programs. Just 1.8 million middle school students were in after-school programs nationwide in 2020, down from 2.3 million in 2014.

In after-school programs, it’s about a lot more than academics. Our staff recognizes whena sixth grade boy has a problem. We advise a girl who is frustrated and embarrassed because her mom won’t buy or use deodorant. We take middle-schoolers on field trips to places they’ve never been — the zoo, the beach or a photography exhibit that relates to their lives.

They talk to us about things they won’t or can’t share with their parents.

At the program we run in Florida, we continue to serve students in person every day, although enrollment is down due to social-distancing requirements. We provide students with meals they might otherwise go without and with certified teachers to help with their homework and mentors to expand their horizons. We focus on life skills and have regular rap sessions about what’s going on in the world. Last month, we focused on Black history, discussions they loved.

The experiences and social support we provide in our after-school and summer programs is so important. Students this age live in a box, and until you get them outside the box, you can’t expand their minds.

In past summers, we’ve done project-based learning, in which students in every classroom come up with their own themes. One group of older middle school kids told their personal stories with pictures. We also worked on math, science and coding, as they learned to make and develop photos and create a website to display them with cartoons and animation.

A key measure of our success is the students who come back as youth workers when they are in high school or college. One student who came back credits us with helping him find balance between academics and the support his mom needed from him as the oldest of eight children in a single-parent home. We taught him how to help his family and also help himself. He kept his grades up, and now he’s in the army. Success stories draw in more students and families.

We need to invest in after-school programs for middle school students now more than ever, to stave off pandemic learning loss and dropouts.

And we need to understand that students need more — not less — support during the middle school years. Unless we provide it, we’re going to lose a lot of children who might otherwise have bright futures.

Nicole Carter is an after-school ambassador for the Afterschool Alliance, the youth services supervisor for the City of Hallandale Beach Austin Hepburn Center After School Tutorial Enrichment Program and a 27-year veteran of the after-school field.

This story about middle schoolers in the pandemic was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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