Conversation About the OST Workforce: Unify a Fragmented Profession

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Ellen S. GannettEllen Gannett is director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. NIOST has provided research, evaluation, technical assistance, consultation and training on after-school programs throughout the United States for more than 35 years.

Gannett’s work ranges from system building for after-school and youth development to professional development and creating evaluation systems. She began her work in the field four decades ago as a teacher-director of a school-based after-school program. Gannett was named one of the 25 most influential people in the after-school community by the National AfterSchool Association.

Youth Today: You’ve been involved in the professionalization of the after-school field for a long time. What have been some lows and highs of that journey?

Ellen Gannett: Clearly the low is the length of time it is taking for our field to advance as a profession. This struggle to professionalize has been going on a long time, 35 years at least. When I first started in the work in the 1970s … I had no idea that I was in any kind of field. I thought I was providing a community service, not that I was part of something larger. It wasn’t until I arrived at the School Age Child Care Project (now NIOST) that I realized it was a profession — or could be. The highs have been the development of a comprehensive core set of skills, competencies, tools for assessment that are increasingly utilized across the field.

YT: Why do you think it’s taking so long to professionalize the field?

EG: One of the reasons this has taken so long is that the field is so fragmented. There is a silo mentality — licensed school-age child care programs are in one silo and funded by the Child Care Development Block Grant. At the same time, you have the youth-development programs such as the Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCA, and settlement houses which have been around over 100 years. They’re in their own silo. Then comes the No Child Left Behind Act and  21st Century Community Learning Centers, which are in their own little silo.

We’ve been trying to bring these sectors together. We need to embrace common competencies, common research and practices to elevate the field overall. We need to create a career path for those who choose to stay in the field. The definition of the job needs to be changed so it crosses over settings and ages and stages. You can’t make a profession around work that is limited to a time of day. Youth-development professionals should be able to work with schools, communities and families. Right now, it’s a short-term or part-time job that’s a stepping stone for other work. For others, they love the work, but they have to leave because they can’t support themselves. I was one of the lucky ones who was able to stay in the field as a trainer, researcher and evaluator, but that’s rare. We need to think about multiple pathways so that people can stay in the work.

YT: Can you trace the history of the struggle for professionalization?

EG: In the early 1990s we had a surge of interest from many different sectors to try to create a stronger workforce. Wheelock College’s Center for Career Development developed a professional development system, which was originally designed for early education and care. We adapted it to school age. We looked to the Child Development Associate (CDA), which was sponsored by the Council for Professional Recognition.

The military also took a lead and passed the Military Child Care Act, which promoted quality and stronger workforce practices. The Army, for example, required every program to be accredited and the lead staff had to have credentials. A committee of the National Afterschool Association tried to replicate the efforts of the early childhood field, but the response we heard was “Where’s the market?” Folks desired to become a stronger profession, with new credentials or career paths. But there were no requirements or incentives for doing so. Other than intrinsic value, what was going to be the reward in the end?

[Related: Community College Proposal Not Enough to Transform OST Field]

In the early 2000s, there was another surge of interest, from the foundations [that] were expressing support for strengthening the field.  Funders such as the Lucille and David Packard, Annie E. Casey, Robert Bowne, Wallace and Mott all came forward looking for ways to support workforce projects.

In Boston we got funding from the Barr Foundation to support a pilot called the “Achieve Boston Initiative,” which was about professionalizing the field and enhancing careers.  Through that we created the School Age and Youth Development credential, fondly known as the SAYD. We worked collaboratively with local colleges, so the credential would be credit-bearing. What we didn’t have was sustained financial support.

It was the same with the work we did with other initiatives such as the Next Generation Youth Work Coalition, which included advocacy and research efforts, and worked on bridging the silos. Again, once the funding ended, we couldn’t find new leaders to pick up the mantle.

If you can imagine two concentric circles — we have been historically working at the inner circle which includes the components of the professional development system — standards, assessment tools and core competencies. The outer circle includes safeguards such as advocacy, communication, partnerships, embedding quality and sustainable  funding. These safeguards haven’t been fully functional, and has slowed down our ability to professionalize. If the outer circle is functioning, the inner components of the professional development system will strengthen. Without the outer circle functioning, we are just spinning our wheels, and it isn’t systematic.

YT: Where do you think we stand as a field now?

EG: If everything goes well, we are at the cusp of some significant movement in the right direction. ... In order to be successful, we have to keep our focus on the whole system, not the parts. We went wrong when we started thinking about certification or a credential, that this would be the beginning of the solution for the professionalization of the field. It was a mistake; credentialing is not a silver bullet. We have a systemic problem, and will have to work on multiple fronts.

We know how to assess competencies and standards, and we have research-based tools helping practitioners collect data and improve their practice. We have the supports to help practitioners get better at what they do — training, coaching, technical assistance, college coursework — and we can articulate the outcomes that we want to reach, what we want to see happen for young people, what we expect to see for the staff who work at these programs.

YT: What do we need to do to move the field forward?

EG: I think that we have many of the pieces of the puzzle that are necessary to create a continuous quality improvement system for the field of youth development. We have a set of core competencies and knowledge, a research base, and quality program standards. They’ve been embraced and adopted by numerous states and cities and youth-serving organizations.

As the first step, we need to get more organizations to adopt this common body of knowledge. Then we need to create incentives or requirements for doing it. We need to explore an expansion of state quality rating and improvement systems to include all sectors of the field, such as licensed-exempt middle and high school programs, programs which are not necessarily part of the licensed world.

There will have to be increased public and private partnerships which provide incentives and rewards for people who earn credentials. I also think that the community colleges have to get on board and shape their courses around the competencies.

YT: What would you like to add?

EG: I’m extremely optimistic about the future of the after-school and youth development field, and the quest to professionalize the field. I’m optimistic because we’ve finally reached a critical moment in our history in which we have amassed the skills and knowledge that will create the platform from which to spring ahead. Thanks in part to the public and private funders who have invested in our field, the advocates who have worked tirelessly for legislation and public support and the research community who have conducted important studies documenting the effects of quality practice and youth outcomes, we’re well positioned to solidify what we know and do and get it to a point where the public will finally recognize our profession. That’s key.  When we see the public recognize our work, new public dollars will be there to support us.

This conversation is the second in our three-part series about the out-of-school-time (OST) workforce. See related story: "School-age Care and OST."

Youth Today’s Resource Hub Editor Sara Hill talks with leaders in the OST field about critical issues facing the profession's workforce. 

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