Work smarter, not harder. It’s a principle that guides successful businesses. How can you streamline expenses and eliminate duplication of effort while maximizing your bottom line? It’s a principle the mayor of Providence, R.I., wanted to explore with the city’s youth development work.
For more than six years, Providence has studied, implemented and tweaked an administrative structure that supports citywide out-of-school (OST) time programming for middle schoolers. Rather than focus on the effects participating in OST programming has on pre-teens; this evaluation spells out how the city organized resources while trying to improve attendance and retention in OST programs.
Statistics from the past decade paint a picture of a needy Providence. With the third-highest poverty rate in the country among cities with populations of 100,000 or more, the public schools of Providence face a daunting task. Three-quarters of their students were eligible for free and reduced lunches in 2006, a share that has risen to 82 percent. More than one-third of the students drop out of school.
Community-based organizations and the city knew the benefits of out-of-school time activities for at-risk children: Kids who regularly participate in high-quality OST programs exhibit better attitudes toward school and get better grades. These kids also demonstrate better social-emotional well-being and engage in fewer risk-taking behaviors.
Despite the fact that 300 OST programs were operating in Providence in 2003, almost half of the city’s middle school youth did not attend any of them. Program quality, availability and pricing were inconsistent. Middle schoolers who did participate averaged less than a day and a half of programming a week.
Providence parents wanted better after-school programming for their pre-teens. Providence Mayor David Cicilline listened and convened a task force, and work began on harnessing city resources to support after-school programming.
Cicilline launched a public/private venture, the Providence After School Alliance (PASA), to carry out the city’s initiative: “to utilize, coordinate and strengthen existing youth programs and community resources across the city to provide middle school youth with easily accessible, high-quality after-school programs.” PASA decided to build relationships among middle schools and community organizations that run out-of-school time programs, in order to create a new delivery model for services.
PASA knows that middle school OST programming has to meet pre-teens where they are in their thinking. Students who feel respected and believe they have a choice are more willing to engage in activities. At that awkward age between regulated childhood and autonomous teen years, middle schoolers seek out activities that are cool and allow them to form their personal identities.
A complex variety of staff members make up the backbone of PASA’s network of support. Three managers oversee each of the city’s neighborhood campuses, called AfterZones. Seven middle schools provide an anchor for OST programming within their campuses. A community-based organization receives funding to hire a site coordinator and program staff to handle day-to-day functions within each middle school. The AfterZone Coordinating Council handles financial matters and general oversight of all participating partners. Finally, AmeriCorps and general volunteers support program delivery.
PASA puts out an annual city-wide Request for Proposals for program providers. Individuals and nonprofits, as well as off-site providers, such as local museums, can submit RFPs. The Coordinating Council selects providers, which receive $4,500 per year per school-based location. Middle schools provide free space, lowering operating costs for OST programs. AfterZone managers handle registration, attendance tracking and transportation to off-site locations and at the end of the day, further reducing operating costs for individual program providers.
Programming runs Monday through Thursday, from the end of the school day at 2:30 p.m., until 5:15 p.m. Individual programs last for an 11-week fall or winter session or a six-week spring session. A four-week summer session has since been added. A typical session may offer around 15 on-site programs and a half-dozen off-site ones.
Each AfterZone offers academic enrichment, sports, art and life skills programming. Activities range from bling- (jewelry-) making and hip-hop dancing to Lego robotics and Ultimate Frisbee. Students are required to spend one hour each day involved in some type of academic project, be it homework, learning games or a special project.
OST providers participate in a recruitment fair at the anchor middle school, with instructors or program staff members pitching their programs directly to the students. Displays that include finished projects and videos of activities attract the most attention.
In an effort to make data-driven decisions, PASA uses youthservices.net to track attendance by program, middle school AfterZone campus and citywide. Recruitment and retention efforts focus on this attendance data. The online database also allows managers to plan for transportation among site locations and at the end of the day.
Individual program providers have the option of being assessed by both an independent quality adviser and the AfterZone manager. Focused on self-improvement rather than a tie-in to future funding, observations are conducted using the Youth Program Quality Assessment form and a PASA-created survey.
These two assessment tools evaluate a program’s ability to meet PASA quality standards relating to health, safety and environment; relationships; programming and activities; staffing and professional development; and administration. Observers spend at least 45 minutes in a program taking notes. Afterward, the observers complete rating scales and discuss significant differences between scores. Later, the team meets with the program provider to identify areas of deficiency that need attention.
An analysis of assessment data reveals that the physical and emotional safety of AfterZone program environments received the highest score, with an average of 4.12 on a 5.0 scale. The ability of instructors to engage youth and provide them with opportunities to plan activities, make choices, and reflect on their involvement scored lowest with an average of 2.6 out of 5.0. Looking at the level of engagement within different category of activities, sports in particular, score significantly lower, at 1.42, than academic enrichment, art, or life skills programs. Youth surveys confirm that sports programs are the least engaging.
PASA made a conscious choice not to charge families for AfterZone programming. Students, however, must have written parental permission to sign up. Overall AfterZone enrollment in 2008-09 ranged from 35 percent to 53 percent of students per anchor school.
Looking more closely at the data, Providence middle schoolers follow a nationwide pattern, with more sixth- and seventh-graders participating in OST programs than eighth-graders. At one school with a 53 percent overall participation rate, 71 percent of sixth-graders enrolled in AfterZones, compared with 28 percent of eighth-graders.
PASA reports that AfterZone programming cost $929 per student in 2008, compared with $444 to $903 per student for comparable programming outside of Providence. But AfterZone provides transportation, which it finds critical, and that is the single most expensive item in its budget. Most comparable programs do not provide transportation.
PASA’s goal of transferring ownership of school-based duties to community-based organizations (CBOs) so that it can focus its efforts on organizing resources for long-term sustainability has not gone smoothly. While 21st Century Community Learning Center grants cover the cost of each AfterZone’s site coordinator and support staff services, CBOs complain that the money is not enough. In addition, PASA and CBOs have had to negotiate a better understanding of roles and responsibilities of site coordinators.
While the financial sustainability of PASA remains elusive in the current economy, other cities, including Nashville, Tenn., and Asheville, N.C., have been looking at Providence as a model for improving quality and cost-effectiveness in after school programming.
A toolkit for replicating PASA’s community support system can be found at www.edutopia.org/pasa-after-school-program-introduction. A copy of the Rhode Island After-School Quality Standards developed by PASA can be downloaded at http://mypasa.org.
Alessa Giampaolo is an educational consultant and curriculum developer. She can be reached at email@example.com.