Quality after-school opportunities benefit children in many ways, but millions of disadvantaged youth don’t have access to good programs. Research I did several years ago at Harvard, commissioned by The Wallace Foundation, painted a consistent pattern of winners and losers when it comes to participating in quality OST experiences, and this is still true today.
According to U.S. census data cited by Robert Putnam in his 2015 book “Our Kids,” poor children are three times as likely as their better-off classmates to not participate in either sports or clubs. Further, one-third of poor children are not participating in any after-school activities, compared to only one in 10 of their wealthier peers.
One possible solution to this opportunity gap is the development of citywide after-school systems that coordinate the work of municipal agencies, schools, nonprofit youth programs and others to improve access to quality programming for all children, not just those who can afford to pay. There is promising evidence that after-school systems can support greater access to quality OST programs.
Here are four key elements necessary to make sure systems take root, according to the Wallace report.
✦ Strong leadership from major players
Mayoral leadership matters. In a 2013 Wallace-commissioned survey of large U.S. cities, cities where respondents described their mayors as “highly committed” to after-school coordination were likely to see stable or increased funding during a five-year period. Conversely, when a mayor was “not at all” or only “slightly” committed to the work, they either cut or provided no funding for a five-year period.
After-school systems also look to city council members, superintendents and city agency heads to help spearhead sustainability efforts and cultivate relationships with nonprofit agency leads, midlevel district personnel, program staff and school personnel. This way, when the inevitable transitions in leadership occur, support for the system remains strong.
✦ Coordination that fits local context:
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to how cities coordinate and govern their systems. And where you incubate is not always where you end up. When I asked the nine cities in the current Wallace initiative to identify their “Achilles heel” in terms of sustainability, most cities cited governance as an area of vulnerability, signaling this is an area to pay attention to early and often.
✦ Effective use of data:
Developing a data system and effectively using the data (participation rates, program satisfaction surveys, quality assessments) are not one and the same. While many cities are able to use data for monitoring and compliance, using data to inform strategy and improve programming requires training and support.
Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago recently investigated this topic for a Wallace-commissioned research study. One of their early findings is that effective data use is more than choosing the right technology solution. It involves people (the stakeholders) and processes (routines, norms and practices — including the collection, organization, analysis, interpretation and use of data to meet the goals and inform the operation of the system).
✦ Comprehensive approach to quality:
Knowing that quality matters, cities have invested in developing quality improvement systems. This work tends to start with the development and adoption of a common set of standards that are applied to all programs in the system. The next step is for after-school systems to assess programs’ ability to meet the standards, and, based on that data, determine what professional and organizational supports are necessary for improvement. (See “Building Citywide Systems for Quality: A Guide and Case Studies for Afterschool leaders.”)
The road ahead
Despite progress on these key elements, the nine cities in our initiative struggle to maintain and grow their systems. Systems should consider these key functions:
✦ Securing and managing resources:
Figuring out how to raise and manage resources to support the system, as well as the programs it may fund, is a core function of an after-school system. Cities have developed creative ways for doing so. For example, one community receives in-kind airline tickets to send staff to professional development conferences. Other communities tap into dedicated local funding to support youth services. Others create funder collaboratives or charge nominal member fees.
Interestingly, cities note that funding their data work is “easier” than funding other aspects of their systems, signaling a potential need to help funders understand the importance of program quality. To aid after-school systems in this task, Grantmakers for Education has recently released a new “Funder’s Guide to Out-of-School Time Program Quality.”
✦ Growing partnerships:
Partnerships can help cities expand their after-school program network and connect to other community, state and federal agencies. Both partnership types are important to sustainability. Expanding the provider network within a system is a way to give more youth access to high-quality OST opportunities. However, expanding internal networks is not sufficient. Cities are now looking externally to engage stakeholder groups beyond the usual suspects, such as public libraries, health and mental health organizations, and chambers of commerce that could help root their work by supporting a systems approach.
✦ Storytelling with data:
Early in our initiative, cities realized that sustainability, in part, depends on being able to tell a compelling story about why after-school systems matter to youth success and that data makes their arguments more persuasive. Message maps that include data have helped cities develop a core message and then tailor it depending on audience: Mayors might want to hear about how after-school programs contribute to public safety, while superintendents may want to know how they support student success.
✦ Understand state and federal policy:
Finally, while there is still much that isn’t known about how the Educational Student Support Act will unfold, it may present opportunities that benefit after-school systems and their partners. I encourage readers to follow the progress of this new legislation.
When Wallace began funding after-school system building in 2003 we were not sure if it was a concept that would take hold. Thirteen years and many experiences later, we know taking a systemic approach to improving access to quality OST opportunities is a viable approach for leveling the playing field for disadvantaged children and youth — helping them gain access to opportunities more often experienced by their more affluent peers. While challenges remain in scaling and sustaining the work, we now have a rich set of research-based lessons as well as emerging observations to draw on to help communities interested in taking such a systems approach.
Priscilla Little manages The Wallace Foundation’s Next Generation Afterschool System Building Initiative. The recommendations are informed by the technical assistance team that supports the foundation’s initiative, including: Collaborative Communications, Cross & Joftus, The Forum for Youth Investment, John W. Gardner Center at Stanford University, National Institute for Out-of-School Time and National League of Cities.