UPDATED: National After-School Conference Kicks Off in Baltimore

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AfterschoolBALTIMORE -- Nearly 400 people, including mayors, city officials, educators and nonprofit workers, are in Baltimore for two days this week to learn from a decade of research into after-school programming, and to take those findings back to their cities at a time of tightening municipal budgets.

Organized in partnership with five youth-serving organizations – including the Wallace Foundation, the American Youth Policy Forum, the Collaborative for Building After-School Systems, the Forum for Youth Investment, and the National League of Cities – the conference brings together teams of people representing 57 different cities around the country.

Asking people to register not as individuals, but as teams representing multiple organizations and agencies within a single city, was a deliberate, if unusual, decision, said Lucas Bernays Held, a spokesman for the Wallace Foundation. As after-school programs tend to be decentralized, diverse in focus and varied in quality, the foundation is encouraging cities to develop a coordinated effort with different groups in order to use local resources more efficiently and with more effective results.
A decade ago, the foundation launched an initiative in five cities -- Providence, New York, Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C. -- to examine ways for cities to improve the quality of after-school programs. An evaluation by The Rand Corporation in 2011 found that the cities that participated in the initiative had effectively demonstrated it was indeed possible to expand access to high quality after-school opportunities through improved coordination, Held said.

“We thought that if a team could absorb the lessons of the decade of work on after-school systems, that collectively they would be more likely to put in place what they have learned,” Held said, referring to the conference’s focus on team attendance. “It is an experiment, that the teams will be in a better position to lead positive change in their communities.”

That was a message underscored by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at the opening session of the conference Thursday night. Rawlings-Blake described her experiences as a young Baltimore city council member as pivotal to her realization that better collaboration and data collection were essential to measuring and improving outcomes in her city’s after-school programs.

As a city council member, Rawlings-Blake said, she asked for a map of after-school programs in the city and was surprised to see that the neighborhoods where the most resources were concentrated did not demonstrate improved outcomes for young people.

“It just annoyed me that we were doing all these programs without any coordinated effort,” Rawlings-Blake said. “We knew we had to do things differently.”

The city built upon the connections it had made with community organizations during its summer programs and carried those relationships into after-school activities, Rawlings-Blake said. Now as mayor, she emphasizes collaboration as a way to utilize limited resources and puts outcomes above all else when evaluating which programs to fund, she said.

“When you love kids, you have to hold the people who are providing services accountable,” Rawlings-Blake said.

The goals of after-school programs are as diverse as the organizations that run them. Their historical roots lie in century-old efforts to acclimate immigrant children to the United States, Held said.

Now such programs aim to help women join the workforce, provide basic childcare, reduce children’s exposure to risk, keep them off the streets, and reduce juvenile crime rates, said Dara Rose, a senior program officer for the Wallace Foundation.

Increasingly, leaders in the field are pushing the time children spend in after-school programs as the key to closing the academic achievement gap between different racial and income groups, Rose said. Others see such programs as an opportunity to expose children to subjects that may be crowded out in school by the test-led focus on math and literacy: areas like sports, science and leadership that create a well-rounded child, Rose said.

The Great Recession and the economic slump of the last several years had created a “new normal” for city governments, Rawlings-Blake said, one requiring tough conversations with city groups about consolidating and cutting public resources. Groups that want to access city funding for after-school programs must prove the money would be well spent, she said.

“I think the worse thing you can do, as far as I’m concerned, is come unprepared without data to show that you’re actually achieving goals for young people,” Rawlings-Blake said. “It takes more than an idea. You have to do the work. Our kids are worth more than that.”

Photo credit: Atlanta Public Schools