After-School Magnets

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Providence, R.I.—It’s lunchtime at Samuel W. Bridgham Middle School. Wednesday’s menu consists of beef and macaroni, garlic bread, apples and chocolate milk. The main dish isn’t selling too well, but a lot of the kids are buying what Alejandro Molina offers.

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Molina is recruiting students for one of the city’s five AfterZones – a primary initiative of the Providence After School Alliance (PASA). The goal: Provide neighborhood-based after-school opportunities for the city’s 6,000 middle-schoolers, giving them a chance to have fun, keep busy, stay off the streets – and maybe learn some academic skills.

The girls in the cafeteria aren’t shy. As a group gathers around a laptop computer to watch a tape of last spring’s hip-hop class at an AfterZone, a sixth-grader with big earrings giggles as she points to herself in the video and declares, “That’s me!” Five of her girlfriends quickly sign up for the fall hip-hop session.

Molina must work harder to engage the boys. He moves among the lunch tables energetically, pitching a series of offerings with titles designed to attract young people. “Music 101: Hooks, Mixing and Composing” offers opportunities to write songs and produce CDs. “Dead or Alive” teaches about animals and ecology.

Providence is one of five cities in a Wallace Foundation-funded initiative aimed at creating after-school networks that keep kids engaged and are sustainable. The PASA effort is rapidly building momentum and excitement in the city.

Wallace will invest $5 million in Providence over five years; the foundation’s commitment to all the cities – Boston, Chicago, New York and Washington are the others – is expected to exceed $40 million through 2007.

The initiative’s distinctive nature relates not to its size, however, but its strategy. The recipients cannot simply pass their funding down as grants to local programs; they don’t make academic achievement their first priority; and they are distributing decision-making power about funding to neighborhood-based coalitions.

To achieve the objectives, the foundation requires the grantees to conduct market research about what parents and children want, develop business plans, gather data about the quality of existing programs, invest in training to improve program quality, and build capacity so that good programs will live on after the Wallace money is gone.

What Kids Want

Providence is as good a place as any to try a new after-school idea.

Among cities of its size, Providence has the country’s third-highest child poverty rate. Rhode Island’s Kids Count reports that nearly 40 percent of the city’s children live in poverty.

What’s more, the quality of the city’s after-school opportunities is uneven at best. Providence has just 10 poorly equipped recreation centers and a collection of nonprofits of varying quality that often compete for the same government and philanthropic dollars.

A 2004 study prepared by Market Street Research for the mayor’s office showed that Providence middle schoolers spent an average of one out of five weekdays in structured after-school activities, and 48 percent were involved in no structured activities on any weekdays.

The reasons? A PASA survey showed that many Providence parents found after-school programs inconvenient and weren’t sure they were safe. And the kids didn’t necessarily like the programs.

The Wallace approach to this dilemma is based in part on a national study it commissioned: “All Work and No Play: Listening to What KIDS and PARENTS Really Want From Out of School Time.” Conducted by Public Agenda and released in 2005, the study suggested that what parents and children want most from after-school programs is not necessarily better academic achievement, but programs that are safe, fun and varied, and that engage children.

“Many after-school programs offer a wide range of programs,” notes Nancy Devine, director of community programs at Wallace. “But over time, they can lose credibility, and then lose support. We’re encouraging the cities to offer good enough quality to keep young people participating in programs.”

That means the programs must be good enough to both attract and retain youth.

That’s why the foundation, before fully funding PASA, required that it find out what parents and youth in Providence want. The top answers: safety, fun and high-quality leaders, teaching students to get along with others and teaching youth new skills.

Those criteria are reflected in the offerings co-sponsored by PASA. Take the collaboration between Johnson & Wales University and a local library, called Bites and Bytes. Kids cook foreign dishes and use computers to learn about the countries where the meals originated. The dozens of other activities include boxing classes, a circus school, a black repertory company, double-dutch jump roping and drumming.

Hiding Education

The academic components of the programs are often well-disguised. Ask John O’Flaherty of the Community Boating Center, a boathouse and dock at the city’s Indian Point, which runs a program for PASA. While the center is less than a mile from downtown Providence, it’s a world away for many of the city’s youth.

Why do inner-city kids need to learn how to sail? “Sailing carries a stigma – it’s a rich white man’s sport,” O’Flaherty says. “When inner-city kids first come here, they may feel that they don’t fit in. But once they learn to sail, and someone trusts them take a $5,000 boat onto the water, their confidence builds.

“If they can sail, it gets them thinking about other things they didn’t think they could accomplish. Maybe they can get a job; maybe they can buy a house.”

The sailing program – like so many of the PASA-affiliated programs – offers fun while providing stealth learning. The students learn to navigate by using GPS technology. O’Flaherty calls this the “IPOD factor: Give kids a piece of hand-held technology, and they’ll respond.”

While learning to plot longitude and latitude, he says, the youths learn not only basic navigational techniques, but also some algebra and geometry.

PASA’s planning director, Patrick Duhon, says there’s something else important about programs like the one at the boating center: letting young people learn somewhere besides their schools, which are not necessarily places where they have found success. “Sometimes, young people need to get on a bus and go to a new place to experience a sense of exploration,” he says.

Keeping the youth exploring requires the kind of consistent quality that after-school programs often struggle to achieve. PASA scanned the country for quality standards used in other cities, then brought together 25 after-school providers to customize quality standards for Providence. Parents and youth leaders also chimed in.

Staff training is crucial for quality control. Workers at PASA affiliates can take part in classes on such skills as conflict mediation, integrating literacy and numeracy into programs, creating safe spaces for youth, writing grant proposals and retaining front-line staff.

Politics Plays a Role

The initiative wouldn’t exist without the strong support of Mayor David N. Cicilline, a Democrat and a former state legislator. Cicilline, elected in 2002 after the corruption conviction of long-time Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr., says the Wallace Foundation’s invitation to apply for a grant was irresistible. Cicilline campaigned in part on improving conditions for children in Providence.

“When I ran for mayor, what I heard all the time from people was that they were worried about their kids,” he recalls. “But with a $59 million deficit, I couldn’t wait for the city to come up with the resources to address the problem.”

He did, however, commit himself to the issue, and had the political power to do something about it. Valerie Forti, president of the Education Partnership, a collaboration of business and education leaders in Rhode Island, says the mayor’s passion and power have been critical to PASA’s success.

“When the idea was first discussed,” she recalls, “everybody was somewhat reluctant. People were already overcommitted and underfunded. Their attitude [about yet another new social innovation] was ‘this too shall pass.’ ”

The mayor felt differently. He summoned all of the city’s middle-school principals to his office.

“I told them that I was very enthusiastic about the idea – and that I expected them to be very enthusiastic, too,” he recalls. And because the mayor appoints school board members (with city council approval), he soon got a new school superintendent, Donnie Evans, who is committed to the concept.

Cicilline also recruited a police chief, Dean Esserman, who shares his passion about the city’s young people. “There should be more moral outrage about the number of children that we are burying and arresting,” Esserman says.

Esserman – who considers juvenile curfews useless, because young people get in trouble in the daylight hours after school – initiated a Police Activities League and expanded the School Resources Officer program.

Intermediary Paves the Way

Each AfterZone is located in a city neighborhood and is governed by a collaboration of local agencies, with programs operating in a variety of sites. The effort got off to a remarkably fast start. Launched in the fall of 2004, three AfterZones were operating by early 2006; the fourth and fifth are slated to open in January 2007. Early data are promising: By late October, 81 percent of the AfterZone slots were filled.

One reason for this success is the intense support of the Education Partnership.

For starters, Forti loaned out the partnership’s vice president of public engagement, Hillary Salmons, to run PASA. And because the partnership served as the incubator for PASA, the new entity didn’t need to create its own operations, management or personnel policies. The partnership also provided office space, parking, a database, Internet access and phones.

The partnership’s role as fiscal agent provided the alliance with a board to provide financial oversight, legal review and accountability, Salmons says. “It is challenging to define who is ultimately responsible for the safety of the participating youth, from PASA to the nonprofit partners, the city recreation and school departments,” she says. “The partnership has shouldered this responsibility.”

While PASA was new to the community, the partnership was not. The partnership has lobbied for funds as well as political support for PASA.  Salmons says the partnership’s support provided momentum that allowed the alliance to develop at a speed that rarely occurs in the nonprofit world.

And having a sponsor offered PASA the chance to provide a high level of transparency that accelerated trust-building among the public and private organizations involved. At all times, says Salmons, partners have been able to see exactly how the alliance spends its funds.

Where’s My Slice?

The transparency, however, has not always promoted harmony. In the beginning, PASA had $5 million from the Wallace Foundation – as well as $1 million from the Bank of America – while local nonprofits were struggling. And there were hard feelings in some quarters about PASA’s perceived bounty.

“A lot of people were angry at PASA,” recalls Anthony Heywood, the city’s deputy recreation director. “They knew about the money, and they wanted to know how to apply for grants.” What they didn’t understand, he says, “was the idea that we were going to work together to figure out how to fight for a whole pie instead of each fighting for a slice.”

Had the slices been handed out, he says, “the money would be gone now, and it would be business as usual.”

There have been some compromises. Although the bulk of PASA’s funding is still earmarked for operating support of the AfterZones, much of the Bank of America’s $1 million grant has been used to provide mini-grants to local youth-serving organizations and to provide much-needed sports equipment, especially for the recreation centers.

Tech Boom

It is in Heywood’s recreation department – for years a political fiefdom unto itself – that one of the most remarkable transformations in Providence has occurred.

While Cicilline brought in new leadership, including Heywood, the PASA connection has produced a profound secondary effect on the recreation centers. With alliance support, the centers have moved into the technological age. Center employees now use laptop computers to communicate with each other and to access the Internet, and they use PASA’s tracking tool to monitor attendance.

That tool does far more, however, than record attendance. Each quarter, programs using the tool can record initial enrollment, the number of participants who drop out of their programs, and the number of slots available. The tool also records “average daily attendance” and “percentage of average daily attendance,” which is average daily attendance divided by enrollment.

These numbers are important, for they allow programs to document attendance for public reimbursement.

That documentation may ultimately affect funding decisions. PASA provides very few direct grants. Funding decisions by each AfterZone are governed by coordinating councils. As programs share data, that data – such as attendance rates – can drive funding decisions.

Looking Ahead

Wallace’s Devine says that her foundation doesn’t intend to provide long-term support for the Providence effort. “They should be able access some untapped resources and unlock some state resources,” she says.

Cicilline has pledged to ask the city council to help fund PASA in fiscal 2008 and to seek support from other public and private sources. In addition, the alliance is working with local providers to help them get licensed by the state as child-care providers. If they can maintain high enough attendance rates, these providers might be eligible for child-care subsidies, which in Rhode Island are available for low-income children through age 15. PASA’s staff is also encouraging school faculty to use federal Title I funding, which provides grants to low-performing schools to offer after-school programs.

Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director of Rhode Island’s KIDS COUNT, says that one of Providence’s greatest strengths is its size. With a population of about 175,000 people, she says, “We are small enough to do great things.”

Yet PASA and its allies in Providence have less than three years to make good on that optimism. Local leaders and alliance staffers understand they must build relationships across city departments, and between public and private organizations, that can survive political changes.

Everyone involved agrees on two things, says Forti of the Education Partnership: “Our greatest worry is that we will create something marvelous and cannot sustain it. So we can’t slow down now, or people will lose faith.”