Seventeen years ago, Lynn Heemstra was hired to run a little office in Grand Rapids, Mich. Her job was to improve the well-being of children in her community.
The office was created jointly by the city and the local school board.
“People didn’t know what the office would look like, except that it would advocate for the needs of children and families,” she said.
Today Heemstra’s office coordinates a citywide after-school network that serves 21,000 kids at 180 sites. Sixty organizations provide the programs.
Grand Rapids demonstrates four elements of successful citywide after-school networks, according to The Wallace Foundation, which issued a report in July, “Growing Together, Learning Together: What Cities Have Discovered About Building Afterschool Systems.”
The critical elements, according to the report, are strong leadership, central coordination, effective use of data and a comprehensive approach to quality.
In the past 10 years, nearly 30 cities have shifted from funding individual after-school programs to creating a citywide system, according to the National League of Cities, an organization of municipal governments across the United States.
In 2003, the league surveyed municipal leaders and found that 22 percent listed after-school as the most critical need for children and families in their area. That year, the Wallace Foundation began supporting five cities in creating coordinated after-school systems, and it added nine more in 2012.
Based on the experience of those cities, which include Grand Rapids, the foundation detailed the elements that are important in setting up such a system.
Grand Rapids was also highlighted in an August report by America’s Promise Alliance as a city that went from having no expanded learning opportunities for kids to one that offers many such opportunities.
Leading the charge
“For a city to be successful in getting the work started, you have to have strong leadership,” said Daniel Browne, author of the Wallace Foundation report.
In Grand Rapids, Mayor George Heartwell, then a city commissioner, took the lead along with a school board member.
“Mayor Heartwell went to the National League of Cities conference [in 1995], and that really got the ball rolling,” Heemstra said.
Upon returning, he spearheaded a joint meeting of the city commission and the school board, which ultimately resulted in the creation of Heemstra’s office, Our Community’s Children.
Providence, R.I., is another example of a city with strong mayoral leadership, Browne said. Mayor David Cicilline formed the Providence After School Alliance in 2004, a public-private venture to create greater access to programs.
In cities where the mayor is committed to an after-school system, funding has been more likely to grow, Browne wrote in his report.
Who runs the show?
Cities must find or create a coordinating entity for the after-school system, the report said.
This entity may raise and distribute money, help program providers get trained, assess program quality, collect and analyze data and function as an advocate for after-school resources in the community, according to the report.
“You can’t just rely on your mayor into perpetuity,” Browne said.
It is important for a city to have the involvement and commitment of city agencies, private funders, schools, program providers and the families they serve, Browne said.
But the coordinating entities are quite different, depending on the city.
“One of the things we’ve learned is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach,” he said.
Providence is an example of a city-created entity, Browne said. On the other hand, “Baltimore empowered an existing organization, the Family League of Baltimore.” And Nashville, Tenn., chose the public library as its central entity. In Grand Rapids, Our Community’s Children is part of the mayor’s office and coordinates a network of community organizations, half of which provide after-school programs.
A 2012 survey of 212 coordinating organizations in cities nationwide showed that more than half were local nonprofits and 37 percent were multiservice nonprofits such as the YMCA. Twenty-five were state after-school networks, and 16 were local foundations, according to the Wallace report.
Driving with data
To coordinate an entire after-school system, data is extremely important, the Wallace Foundation report said.
“It’s really important to emphasize not just the collection of data but making sure after-school providers can use it effectively,” Browne said.
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City agencies need to know where the demand is — which areas of the city need and would use out-of-school programs. Parents need to know what programs are available and see descriptions of them.
Data on the programs themselves is important so that providers and the system as a whole can measure quality and adherence to standards.
“[In Grand Rapids] we have made tremendous strides in developing an integrated data management system,” Heemstra said.
They began by holding focus groups with providers, who did not want to enter multiple data into different data systems. As a result, a data system was developed that allowed providers to upload information from their current system.
The system collects students’ attendance and academic data — and even their juvenile court involvement. Information is available from schools as well as the police.
“We’re also able to track their social and emotional status,” said Shannon Harris, program coordinator at Our Community’s Children. After-school providers report on children’s confidence and communication abilities, among other factors. It’s part of an evaluation of children’s social and emotional skills developed by Ronald Ferguson of the Harvard School of Education.
As a result, the impact of the after-school programs can be measured individually and collectively.
“When you can demonstrate these outcomes, you get greater investment,” Heemstra said.
Ensuring quality programming
A final important element in citywide system building is a comprehensive approach to quality, the report said.
Cities decide what quality looks like, and they adopt standards for their program.
“We thought it was important to have shared standards of what we expected from each other,” Heemstra said.
“We spent a great deal of time looking at what was out there nationally,” she said.
The city also aligned its standards with those the state had in place and adopted the Youth Program Quality Assessment (YPQA) assessment tool created by the David P. Weikart Center.
Cities must also decide how they are going to get providers to adhere to standards, the report said.
Some cities choose to make standards voluntary, while others make them mandatory, according to the report. But many take an in-between approach, such as requiring standards as a condition of funding but not yanking the funding if standards aren’t met.
In Grand Rapids, acceptance of the standards is a condition of joining the after-school network. Providers agree to integrate the standards into their programs and agree to be evaluated and reviewed.
Creating a citywide system has allowed Grand Rapids to move closer to its goal of providing after-school access to all children.
Before the system was created, organizations were duplicating their efforts, Heemstra said. They were requesting funds for after-school, but they “didn’t always know what was happening down the street from them,” she said.
With strong leadership and the creation of Our Community’s Children, a data system and a quality assurance program, the city has hit the key elements defined by the Wallace Foundation report.
Heemstra also credits the success in Grand Rapids with several things.
“We’ve had continuity in leadership,” she said.
And support from national organizations, including the National League of Cities, has lent credibility to the city’s efforts, she said.
In addition, Heemstra said, local investment and a strong commitment from community stakeholders and after-school providers has been important.
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