The elementary school kids shared their “highs and lows” of the school day as they sat pretzel-style in a circle on the gymnasium floor after school Wednesday at Indianapolis Public School 57 in Irvington.

Some squirmed, eager to run around the gym after a full day of following directions. Others listened intently to their peers as they shared their stories: good grades, new crushes, a treat earned because of good behavior, moving seats in class because they were talking too much.

The circle time is a daily ritual in the AYS Inc. after-school program before a little exercise, homework time and that afternoon’s science project: building a bird feeder. It’s one of more than 40 programs offered by the not-for-profit at schools in and around Marion County.

Advocates for after-school programs in Indiana say their programs are vital community resources that are increasingly offering robust academic programs, but they are often thought of as an after-thought to the traditional school day.

Starting Monday, a “Summit on Out-Of-School Learning” hosted by the Indiana Afterschool Network and the Indiana Department of Education hopes to change that as more than 700 youth workers, educators, community groups and policy leaders from around the state gather in Indianapolis to discuss how to improve and increase access to their programs.

“It’s kind of an education horizon where there’s so much opportunity,” said Debbie Zipes, president of the Indiana Afterschool Network. “We all need to rally around strengthening the resources, training and the partnerships. It’s like an education frontier.”

The summit is called “I AM Indiana Afterschool” and a panel Monday moderated by Chalkbeat Indiana Bureau Chief Scott Elliott will focus on the role that after-school programs play in the education of Indiana kids.

The panel will feature State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, state Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, Melanie Brizzi, director of the Indiana Office of Early Childhood and Out-of-School Learning, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and Jodi Grant, executive director of the National Afterschool Alliance.

Before- and after-school programs are commonly misunderstood as being more about babysitting than learning. But Zipes said the best programs are increasingly offering STEM enrichment and other learning that’s an extension of the school day.

The Indiana Afterschool Network has created college-and-career ready standards for after-school programs, along with STEM standards for after-school programs.

“We really see after-school as being an innovative space where you don’t have the same limitations of the school day,” Zipes said. “You don’t have testing. This is a great, innovative space.”

They’ve also been shown to decrease crime and help kids do better in school, since after-school and summer programs can add 1,080 hours of academic time to a child’s year. That’s the amount of hours in 144 school days.

“It’s about complementing the school day and making sure we’re a resource for student success,” said AYS president Chrystal Struben. “We’re with them two to three hours before school starts and two to three hours after. That’s a lot of time to influence a child. If you’re offering quality programming, it does make a difference in a child’s success.”

But funding the programs remains an issue. Before- and after-school programs have relied on a “patchwork” funding system from state grants, federal dollars and philanthropic gifts that providers say is not sustainable.

Funding shortages have created barriers to access for families who can’t afford to pay. Just 11 percent of Indiana students attend before- or after-school programs, but 31 percent of parents said they would want to enroll them if a program was available, according to data from the Indiana Afterschool Network.

“Our biggest struggle is the financial assistance piece right now, trying to find funding for kids who need tuition support,” Struben said. “There needs to be more resources for parents.”

Zipes said a bigger state investment is needed if policymakers want the neediest kids to be able to access high-quality programs that could boost their learning. Right now the state allocates $800,000 per year in School Age Child Care Grants.

The federal government also provides $20 million as part of No Child Left Behind, which funds about 200 Indiana programs that serve more than 20,000 kids. But last year less than half of the grant applications for the federal money were funded.

“If we really wanted to raise the bar and greatly improve the access, it’s going to require some state investment,” Zipes said. “The private funders can do a piece, but they can’t carry the whole ball.”

Until then, Struben said the field needs to be more open to partnerships than it ever has before.

“There’s always going to be a limit to state and federal funding,” Struben said. “While it’s welcome, I think there are other ideas and partnerships we need to explore. People want to see results.”