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Want Strong Out-of-School Programs? Capture Good Data

Data. Data. Data.

Did you catch that? OK, maybe I'm being a bit blunt, but "data" is a word I heard over and over yesterday at a daylong conference on out-of-school time. The event, held at New York City's Baruch College, brought together officials from city governments and community organizations to talk about how cities can foster OST work.

Again and again, speakers talked about the rising role of data in quantifying what successful programs do and who they serve. The tough part, people agreed, is gathering the kind of data that differentiates a high-quality program from lesser offerings.
But it sounded worth the effort—especially in times as financially challenging as these.

OST has entered "an era marked by greater accountability, greater expecations," Nancy Devine, the director of communities for the Wallace Foundation, said in welcoming participants to the event. The Wallace Foundation sponsored the forum, along with the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development and the National League of Cities.

Good data is a way to make sure a city isn't paying for "empty chairs" at a site, said New York City's Commissioner of Youth and Community Development Jeanne B. Mullgrav. The Big Apple's increased use of data has helped in other ways, as well, Mullgrav told the crowd.

For too long, N.Y.C. had "a sort of gotcha' approach to oversight" when it came to dealing with providers, she said. That meant the city's relationship was heavy on threatening providers for doing something wrong and light on praising them for what they were doing right. Having better numbers and a better sense of what's happening after school means New York can do more of the positive and encourage growth of what's working, she said.

In Chicago, city officials require all OST agencies to use the Department of Family and Support Services' after-school tracking system. The move has helped the city determine where kids are being served adequately and where they're going underserved, which has enabled the city to work to redistribute services accordingly, Chicago's Family and Support Services Commissioner Mary Ellen Caron told the gathering.

Caron also shared a mind-blowing statistic with the crowd. When her city's OST data system was put in place, it cost about $839 per child to operate, she said. Five years later, with development long behind it, it runs for about 98 cents per child.

So Chicago and New York have it all figured out, right?

Well, it's an ongoing process, conferees agreed. Data need to be high-quality and meaningful, and the information needs to be updated regularly. In Chicago, Caron said that the challenges continue to center on making sure there isn't redundant data-entry and dealing with a sometimes-overloaded online system.

Jennifer Sloan McCombs of RAND Corp. urged those in attendance to think carefully about how their organizations would make thoughtful investments in data quality. A key, she said, is making sure different organizations feel invested in the systems and that "they own the data," McCombs, a policy researcher, said.

All good stuff. But, rest assured, there was a lot more to yesterday's event than just data. I'll be writing shortly with another update from the event—next up: collaboration.

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