New participants in Exelon's Stay in School initiative listen to motivational speakers during the after school program's 10th year anniversary ceremony held Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, at Navy Pier. | Photo submitted.

Stephon Jackson was one of the lucky ones.

“Before joining, I was a little iffy about it, because it was a new experience for me and my first job also,” said Jackson, 17. “But afterward, I became comfortable with what I was doing and it built more confidence in my art.”

Jackson is among the 9,000 students who participated in After School Matters’ (ASM) 2015 summer programming out of 20,000 students who applied, according to data provided by the organization.

ASM was founded more than two decades ago by the late Chicago first lady Maggie Daley and former cultural affairs commissioner Lois Weisberg, “to develop cultural activities for the city’s teenagers,” according to a statement on ASM’s website.

The Austin teenager was part of an advanced fine art apprenticeship program held at his high school, Phoenix Military Academy, over the summer — one of 400 ASM programs throughout the city.

According to a 2009 report by Afterschool Alliance, Chicago’s 63 percent of kids in after school and summer learning programs was higher than both the state’s (40) and the nation’s (40). But the city’s 45 percent of kids either taking care of themselves, or being taken care of by siblings, after school let out was the same as the state’s and higher than the nation’s (40).

Although updated data on Chicago students’ involvement in after school programs isn’t easily available, a May 2014 report by Afterschool Alliance noted that, among Illinois’s 2,284,610 school-age youths, 28 percent — or 641,97500 — are unsupervised after school ends.

The statewide 2014 data suggests the availability of after school programming has increased, but an opportunity gap — particularly in low-income areas where the programs are needed most — still persists, experts say.

“Since 2012, we have been steadily increasing program opportunities, yet still cannot meet the demand. Last year, After School Matters served 15,000 teens, while nearly 40,000 teens applied for these spots,” said, Mellody Hobson, ASM’s chairman.

“We must continue to work to close this opportunity gap,” said Patricia Hemingway Hall, CEO of Health Care Service Corporation and a co-chair of ASM’s annual gala held Sept. 21 at Navy Pier.

Afterschool Alliance studies have demonstrated that the peak time for youth-related crime, drug use and sexual activity is between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., and that students who aren’t involved in after school programming are three times more likely to skip class, notes a report by the Youth Project.

“The results speak for themselves,” said Hobson of ASM’s impact during a Sept. 21 interview. “We can show all of these amazing statistics demonstrating how powerful After School Matters is in terms of changing lives, higher graduation rates, higher participation rates than traditional after school programs and the satisfaction rate of teens.”

According to ASM data, 93 percent of 12th grade participants graduated last year, with 84 percent of all of the program’s participants reporting “gains in professional skills like teamwork, leadership and problem solving.”

This summer, nearly 600 Austin students participated in ASM programs, 17 of which operated in the Austin community and serviced nearly 300 teenagers.

But the student enhancements aren’t limited to ASM. Steve Solomon, vice president of corporate relations for Exelon, heads up the Stay in School initiative — a collaboration between Exelon and the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago.

Solomon said the organization was established a decade ago to try putting a dent in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) dropout rate, which was around 50 percent at the time.

“It’s around 70 percent now, so it’s gotten much better, but back then the graduation rate wasn’t very good, truancy was high, dropout rates were high. Being a major corporate citizen here in Chicago, we partnered with United Way and explored ways to solve this,” Solomon said of the program during a Sept. 19 event held at Navy Pier to celebrate its 10th year anniversary.

Since its formation, Stay in School has served roughly 23,000 public school students — with 97 percent of participating seniors graduating high school, 94 percent of participants being promoted to the next grade level and 81 percent of participants increasing their community involvement — according to data provided by the organization. Solomon said many of the participants go on to entry level positions at Exelon and United Way.

Solomon said the organization works with partner agencies such as BUILD (Broader Urban Involvement & Leadership Development), 5100 W. Harrison, a community organization that offers a variety of support services to youths and adults on the West Side — including gang intervention and anti-violence initiatives.

“We had one student who was very disruptive and I wondered how we would work with her and whether we’d want her to come back to the program,” recalled Solomon.

“One of our [partner agencies] reassured us that they had her under control. She grew so much over the course of a year that I actually hired her to be our intern in corporate relations that summer. For some of these kids, they’re great kids, it’s just being pointed in the right direction,” he said.

And sometimes, that shove in the right direction could be rather significant, as Jackson attested.

“I feel like, yeah, the Austin neighborhood is dangerous, but I don’t hang around that neighborhood,” he said. “I basically just go to school, do my work and when I go into the neighborhood, I’m either at my house or a friend’s house. I really don’t hang out around there.”

“It’s hard living on the West Side due to the violence,” said Donecia Blount, 15, a junior at Phoenix who also participated in ASM’s fine art apprenticeship program.

“I come from a large family of five other kids. After school, we’re encouraged to go straight home. It’s kind of hard, but we get through it,” said Blount.

Gabrielle Winton, 18, a student at Michelle Clark Magnet High School in Austin and a first-year Stay in School participant, said she’s leaning on the program not so much as a source of shelter but a buoy for her ambitions.

“I want to study business. In the fall, I’m going to take business 101 at Malcolm X College, because I want to own my own hair salon,” she said, adding that her high school offers various STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum programs and internships with companies like CISCO.

Dan Bassill, a longtime after school program executive and the originator of Tutor/Mentor Exchange, said part of why more students aren’t getting the kind of opportunities that students like Jackson and Winton have been fortunate enough to find is the lack of understanding about program offerings and the poor distribution of programming in poor neighborhoods.

“The number of kids involved in organized non-school programs of different kinds is probably really small and there’s a poor understanding of what goes on. There are a lot of people doing research on what works, but not a lot of people doing marketing research on what’s out there,” he said.

And what’s out there may be decreasing due to the state’s budget crisis. Earlier this year, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s suspended $26 million in state grants, including a $3.1 million grant that would have been allocated to Teen REACH, one of the major state-funded after school programs.

“It’s one thing to balance the budget, it’s another thing to make sure that your budget is in balance with your values,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel during ASM’s annual gala, where the mayor announced the city would increase funding for after school programs.

“The measure of us as a city is, having walked through that door of opportunity, when we reach back, do we grab the door handle or a child’s hand and pull them through the door,” he said.