Damien Ramirez, 11, stacks tires before a weekly bike ride organized by Neighborhood Bike Works. (Photo: Charles Mostoller)
Back at the Neighborhood Bike Works, Liz Pisarczyk is also thinking about impact. The program has typically served about 500 students a year, but a recent strategic planning process has them thinking less about quantity and more about quality.
“We’re recognizing how important it is to reach the students who keep coming back,” says Pisarczyk, the Bike Works’ program director. “Not to say we’re not trying to reach a certain quantity, but maybe we can offer more long-term activities for older youth who’ve stuck around.”
That means focusing on some of the same things that Sheaffer and Friedlander hope other OST programs can report. “We’re really focusing on preparing our youth for career skills and life skills,” Pisarczyk says.
Likewise, she says, the Bike Works could really benefit from the kind of comprehensive directory that the OST Project envisions. “Of course we want kids to come into our programs – but we also want them to discover other programs, especially if they’re in need of tutoring or something like that,” she said. “Right now, that’s where we struggle – a kid needs something very specifically, and we’re kind of, ‘Um, where can we send them?’ I wouldn’t say it happens frequently – but it happens.”
For now, the best resource available remains the ASAP program guide, which has provided program names and basic information by zip code.
An updated version will be online soon, Ennis says. “Now you’ll be able to search for specific programs, or programs that are just for teens, or where meals are provided, where transportation is provided.”
And as the OST Project’s work takes shape, Ennis says, the directory could be even more comprehensive and quality-focused.
But exactly how that might work is still not clear. Under consideration, Sheaffer says, is whether a guide should include some kind of “seal of approval” or rating system – the equivalent of the “Keystone STARS” system used for preschool and child care. Also being considered is a Yelp-style public input process, “where kids and parents could post comments about the program being good or lousy,” Sheaffer says. “That’s a little scary, but might be better than any master quality measurement.”
Also unclear is the impact that the School District’s so-called “doomsday budget,” which promises to strip schools of all but the minimum of legally required staff, will have on next year’s OST programming. The battle for more funding looks set to carry on all summer, and officials say the exact budgets and staffing levels for individual schools won’t be clear until close to September. However, District spokesman Fernando Gallard said that austerity could require the District to close up its buildings at 3 p.m. More than 100 of DHS’s programs are located in school buildings.
In response, ASAP’s Ennis says that his organization is working on two fronts. The first is ensuring that “receiving” schools carry on the programs lost at schools that will close in September. ASAP, which operates chess, drama, Scrabble, and debate clubs for more than 5,000 students, is also preparing for the possibility that it won’t be able to run OST programming in any District schools.
If that’s the case, Ennis said, ASAP will look for other sites: recreation centers, Catholic and charter schools, libraries and so on. “In the worst-case scenario, if they can’t keep the buildings open, we will try to expand our partnerships with out-of-school providers,” he said.
The clock is ticking
Despite all the turmoil and uncertainty, Sheaffer is hopeful that the OST Project can produce not only an agreed-upon set of data points that all OST providers report, but a system for collecting, housing, and managing that data.
He knows that the diversity of OST programming – with its multiple funding streams and its wide array of visions for serving students – won’t change anytime soon. “There’s no way to buck that,” he says. “I think we have to learn how to build on that.”
He also knows that the clock is ticking. When the Wallace funding runs out at the end of 2015, the OST Project will almost surely need to win the support of the next mayor, who’ll likely have to decide whether the city should support it permanently.
That means not only getting a “system of systems” at least partially up and running before Mayor Nutter leaves office, but showing that it can be useful: helping parents choose where to send their children; helping funders decide where to send their dollars; and helping programs evaluate themselves and improve.
Wallace’s Devine says the new system won’t have to be perfect, but it will probably have to show progress in order for a new mayor to support it. Sheaffer agrees, saying that if the “system of systems” doesn’t win the support it needs to be sustained once the Wallace funding and other support dries up, he says, the OST landscape will revert to the fragmented status quo.
For now, parents like Sharon Glass will continue to rely on the more traditional non-system of systems: word of mouth, recommendations from school, and the occasional Google search.
But something better would be welcome, Glass says, because plenty of kids in her West Philadelphia neighborhood aren’t getting what they need. She sees them on the corner every day. “When we leave, they’re out there,” she says. “And when we come back, they’re still out there.”