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How Citywide After-School Systems Are Improving Quality

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As the number of cities building coordinated after-school systems continues to grow, a new report from the Wallace Foundation pinpoints the components essential to ensuring that these efforts provide more students with access to higher-quality programs.

For its report "Growing Together, Learning Together," the Wallace Foundation evaluated research on many of the nearly 80 citywide systems, including 14 that are part of its own 2003 initiative, to identify lessons learned and what makes them work. (By way of disclosure, the Wallace Foundation supports coverage of arts education, expanded- and extended-learning time, and leadership in Education Week.)

The report identifies four key elements to developing successful after-school networks:

  • Strong leadership from major players, including mayors, school district superintendents, after-school providers, private funders, and city agencies
  • Identifying a lead agency or collaboration of groups to coordinate the system based on the needs of the local community,
  • Developing a data-collection system that staff are to use to improve their after-school programs and services
  • Ensuring that all the partners agree on standards of quality and an assessment process for after-school programs and using the evaluations to continuously improve them.

Some Examples: Sprockets and Next Generation

One of the citywide systems highlighted in the report is Sprockets in St. Paul, Minn., which serves more than 20,000 students. It started working with the Wallace Foundation three years ago and has more than 90 organizations collaborating, including the mayor's office, the public library, the parks and recreation department, and St. Paul public schools.

Sprockets' website has information and links to hundreds of after-school and summer programs from art and athletics to college prep and computer activities. 

Generation Next, one of the nonprofits in the St. Paul network, collects and interprets data to use in providing kindergarten-readiness screening, tutoring, mentoring, and other support programs to close the achievement gap and increase high school and college graduation rates for the city's students. 

Using data effectively is the "least developed" element of successful after-school systems, according to the report. 

"An after-school system has many moving parts, but the oil that makes all the gears turn smoothly is data," wrote the report's author, Daniel Browne. 

He said systems with the best data collection and analysis tend to be those where the mayor's office is an active partner.

"We sought to 'aim high in hope and work' when we began our out-of-school-time network now known as Sprockets," said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman in his State of the City address last week.  "We can now measure the reach of out-of-school-time learning and draw powerful connections between those programs and progress in school achievement."

Coleman said he was especially pleased that 83 percent of Sprockets' participants are racial and ethnic minority students and 80 percent are from low-income families.

Studies have found that the best after-school programs can help students feel more connected to their schools and, as a result, increase attendance and improve behavior and academic achievement, said Nancy Devine, the director of learning enrichment at the Wallace Foundation, in a statement. But access is uneven.

"These opportunities are too often limited to high-income families," added Devine. "The cities that have been building after-school systems understand that working together can help expand access to programs for children who really need more high-quality opportunities."

More than 19 million children and teens—two for every student enrolled—would attend after-school programs if they were affordable and available. Of those, demand is twice as high among low-income families as it is for higher-income families, according to an analysis by the Afterschool Alliance that we wrote about here.  

An emerging task and challenge for after-school systems is building social-emotional skills—often known as "soft skills"—into the programs, wrote Browne. Students need more than good grades to succeed, he said. They also need to develop "behaviors like persistence and conscientiousness; attitudes like self-confidence and openness to new ideas; and abilities like self-control, time management, and goal setting."


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