More than a decade after a handful of U.S. cities pioneered efforts to get more children involved in high-quality afterschool by coordinating scattered programs and agencies, a new report captures lessons and best practices from cities nationwide building these "afterschool systems."
The new report from The Wallace Foundation, Growing Together, Learning Together: What Cities Have Discovered About Afterschool Systems, has been at least 12 years in the making. It offers insights from many cities, including 14 that have worked with The Wallace Foundation since 2003, and draws from more than 40 publications on the topic published since 2008.
One city leading the way is St. Paul, Minnesota. Its Sprockets effort, a collaboration of community organizations, the City of St. Paul, and St. Paul Public Schools, links more than 90 organizations and reaches more than 20,000 young people.
"I am proud of Sprockets' network and the partnerships it reflects," said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, speaking yesterday at an event in his city to discuss what's working in afterschool coordination. "The high level of coordination around out-of-school-time learning is enabling more children to reach their full potential and contribute to the social and economic well-being of the entire community."
St. Paul is one of nine cities that have been working with Wallace since 2012 to advance afterschool systems; the others are Baltimore, Denver, Fort Worth, Grand Rapids, Jacksonville, Louisville, Nashville, and Philadelphia. They joined the first five cities funded through the initiative, beginning in 2003: Boston, Chicago, New York City, Providence and Washington, D.C. Examples drawn from their experiences fill the report, offering valuable insights to other cities that want to coordinate afterschool efforts communitywide to ensure that more low-income children are served by high-quality programs.
"We know that high-quality afterschool can offer children a range of benefits," said Nancy Devine, director of Learning and Enrichment at The Wallace Foundation. "Research points to improved school attendance and better attitudes, behavior and performance. But these opportunities are too often limited to high-income families. The cities that have been building afterschool systems understand that working together can help expand access to programs for children who really need more high-quality opportunities."
A 2010 RAND Corporation report examining the system-building efforts of the first five cities concluded "that organizations across cities could work together toward increasing access, quality, data-based decisionmaking, and sustainability" (Hours of Opportunity, Vol 1). Even more significantly, such coordination can succeed in increasing access to programs and spur efforts to improve their quality. As of 2013, according to a Wallace-funded survey, at least 77 of the 275 largest U.S. cities had put in place one or more strategies to coordinate their afterschool programs.
Demand for afterschool is high. According to 2014 data from the national America After 3pm survey, an estimated 10.2 million children participate in afterschool programs - but another 19.4 million would participate if a program were available to them.
A growing number of cities are building afterschool systems to understand and meet local demand. Growing Together, Learning Together identifies four key elements of such systems:
1. Strong leadership from major players. A committed mayor or county executive provides critical support for this citywide effort, especially in the early stages of getting a system off the ground. One insight of the new report, however, is that all mayors eventually step down and the system can lose its champion. This is one reason why cities have benefitted from distributing "ownership" of the system. New York City convened a series of working groups consisting of providers, funders, advocates and academics to accomplish this; Fort Worth formed a new nonprofit organization to oversee its system; Nashville benefitted from a strong partnership with the public library, which offered a home to the system before the mayor's term ended.
2. Coordination that fits local context. Centralized coordination is the essence of an afterschool system - the way cities knit together disparate programs, raising overall quality and access. Experience shows that there are many ways to coordinate the system, and cities benefit from considering all options at the outset and again if needs change or conditions shift. The wide range of options is suggested by a 2012 report, in which the national nonprofit Every Hour Counts surveyed 212 afterschool intermediaries, finding that 56 were local nonprofits, 37 were multi-service nonprofits (including historic social service agencies like the YMCA), five were state networks, and 16 were local foundations. Fifty were classified as "other," suggesting even greater variation.
3. Effective use of data. Data is the oil that makes the gears of an afterschool system move smoothly. Program providers, city agencies, schools, funders, families and young people all need up-to-date, accurate information to make sound decisions. Examples from the report of how cities use data include:
- Mapping helped New York City see which zip codes showed the greatest need for afterschool services and allocate funding accordingly;
- Surveys showed Providence that parents worried about sending young children to programs where older youth might be present;
- Police data helped Grand Rapids show that juvenile offenses dropped by 25 percent when the community increased the number of afterschool programs (establishing a correlation, albeit not a causal link).
4. A comprehensive approach to quality. Recognizing that children benefit only from afterschool that is high quality, many cities prioritize raising quality as a primary goal of the system. Growing Together, Learning Together offers a research-based definition of afterschool quality and offers cities a sense of what the process of intentionally lifting quality involves, including setting standards, winning approval of the standards from key players in the system, deciding how high-stakes to make assessments, training and coaching providers and assessors, and even how much money quality improvement efforts might cost.
While much progress has been made toward expanding access to high-quality afterschool programming, the report notes where further improvements are needed and the challenges still facing these cities, including ways to ensure the work survives over the long haul. The 2013 survey found that only 22 percent of cities who identify themselves as "system builders" have all three key components needed for a sustainable system.
The report concludes with a look at areas of emerging interest, such as the link between afterschool and social-emotional learning and between afterschool and collective impact efforts in education.
The release of Growing Together, Learning Together followed a half-day convening on the latest information on afterschool system-building, hosted by the American Youth Policy Forum and YouthPrise in St. Paul, Minn., with Mayor Coleman offering welcoming remarks and reflections.
The report and an accompanying infographic can be downloaded for free at wallacefoundation.org.