TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — What kids do outside of the classroom can be just as important as what they do during school hours, researchers say.

A senior at Lake Travis High School, Kelli Knight is finishing up her last year as a drum major in the marching band.

“It gives you a real sense of responsibility,” Knight said. “You’re working with 200-plus people all working towards one common goal.”

The benefits extend beyond the field for Knight. “We pay so much attention to detail, especially in our show, and so many of us are working towards making that show as perfect as we can get it,” she said. “And that translates over to school work.”

Football provides the same kinds of advantages for students. Those highly-visible after-school activities improve social and emotional learning, Allison Ivey, executive director of the Learn All the Time network, said.

Education-based programs, though, are important for raising test scores and graduation rates, and for closing the achievement gap between low- and non-low-income students, Ivey said. But, school districts face a constant challenge in funding education-based programs.

Most of them are funded by short-term federal grants, she added. Learn All the Time works with nonprofits who administer summer and after-school programs, helping them apply for the grants they need.

Many last for only a year or two, and then nonprofits have to find new sources of money to keep their programs going.

“I kind of call it funding Whack-A-Mole,” Ivey said. As soon as one grant disappears, another pops up that providers have to pounce on in order to survive.

Research shows high-quality educational after-school programs can close the achievement gap, the term given to disparities in educational outcomes between groups, in this case, low-income students and their peers.

But, without consistent state or local funding for programs, Ivey said, gaps are bound to continue.

“We’re all out there really trying to do the best work we can, never knowing where the funding is coming from,” Sarah Rinner, senior director of out of school time programs for the nonprofit Creative Action, said.

Her group runs arts-based educational after-school programs at dozens of campuses around Austin ISD and other local districts. Not only do they provide continued learning after school, much of the time for disadvantaged students, they also give parents the peace of mind that their kids are being taken care of after school.

Creative Action has teachers to run their programs and students on waiting lists ready to take classes. Funding is the only impediment to expanding opportunities for central Texas students.

“Talk to our city officials, talk to our legislators,” she recommended. “Start telling people all the time how important it is.”

That’s Ivey’s advice, too. Parents should advocate for these programs, she said, and in the short term, check with libraries and parks and recreation departments to find high-quality standard-driven programs for their kids.

“We always struggle with, ‘How do we increase student performance?’ You know, ‘How do we close these gaps?'” Ivey said. “It feels like this really big problem, but there’s so much research to support that the answer’s right in front of us.”