New data will help draw detailed portrait of city’s out-of-school time programs
A decade after he spent afternoons at a Mount Airy recreation center, Che Williams, 24, can still recall how much he enjoyed himself – and how he benefited from supervised homework and social time.
“I am a product of afterschool programs. They kept me out of trouble,” said Williams, who is a graphic designer and illustrator.
The program he attended included African dance lessons that were great fun and still memorable. “Those are the trouble hours, when school is out and your mom isn’t home yet,” he said.
Out-of-school time (OST) programs have long been the linchpin in efforts across the city to keep children safe, deter delinquency, and develop youth skills and talent. The numbers can dazzle: A plethora of programs run by the Free Library, the city Parks and Recreation Department, and numerous charities and private providers draw tens of thousands of children after school and in the summer.
Historically, this mix of programs was run with little coordination or sharing of expertise. For parents, finding the program to suit the interests of their children took research and luck. Some programs were top-notch, while others lacked in quality with ill-trained staff.
All that is changing. With support from the Wallace Foundation, OST advocates are attempting to map every out-of-school time program in the city, collect useful details about each program, and create a profile of the children and youth who attend. Eight other cities also have Wallace backing to improve out-of-school programing.
The citywide project, now in its third year, is called PhillyBOOST, with the aim of building a system of OST systems. Long-term goals include increasing attendance, improving the quality of OST programming citywide, and identifying neighborhoods that lack opportunities. The program also won support from the William Penn Foundation, the United Way of Greater Philadelphia & Southern New Jersey, and the city administration.
Out-of-school programs have advocates across the country, including the Pennsylvania Statewide Afterschool Youth Development Network, the National Institute on Out-of-School Time and the Afterschool Alliance, which sponsors the annual national Lights on Afterschool event, held this year on Thursday, Oct. 23.
“We didn’t start at zero. The city provides lots of OST time,” said Vicki Ellis, project lead and executive director of the Office of Strategic Partnerships for the School District. All 81 city Parks and Recreation centers participate, all Free Library branches have drop-in programs, and the Department of Human Services has invested in more than 200 community-based programs as a dropout prevention effort. Other efforts include the Boys and Girls Clubs, YM/YWCA programs, the Youth Development Network, and numerous others.
The initiative is intended “to create a system of wellness [after school and in the summer] that supports what happens in school,” said Maryum Darby-Madison, who represents Parks and Recreation at PhillyBOOST. “Everyone understands we need to be paying attention to where our young people are going when they leave these schools until they go home.”
As best they can, the programs also attempt to make up for what’s been lost in the city schools. As recently as three years ago, numerous elementary schools offered their own afterschool programs that at one time reached tens of thousands of students districtwide. During the tenures of Superintendents Paul Vallas and Arlene Ackerman, both expanded such initiatives – Power Hour and Beacon were two of them – in an effort to boost student reading skills, and high school principals had funds to run clubs and enrichment programs late into the afternoon. Now the District supports OST programing by keeping school doors open for programs run by community groups.
With efforts to map OST programs across the city well underway, PhillyBOOST is conducting a pilot project gathering data from 21 recreation centers to develop a picture of who attends a particular program, how near or far from their homes they participate, whether there is strong attendance or not, and other indicators of program success.
The data, while incomplete, are revealing, said Lorraine McGirt, OST administrator for the Department of Human Services. “We always had a theory that students tend to stay in their own neighborhood, not go far, but what we’re finding raises a lot of questions and also debunks some theories we had about young people and their habits.”
One question yet to be answered is finding a way to identify how many children, by age group, are not being served in the various neighborhoods.
The value will be in sharing the findings with providers. Ellis said, “We need to build something of value to everyone.”
Gulal Nakati is the PhillyBOOST project’s data lead and Tara Murphy is the Free Library’s liaison.
McGirt noted there are multiple stressors on providers, including the fact that most staff are part-time, so there’s little extra time for collaboration and feedback. Plus, she said, “our funding has remained level for the last couple of years” — that is to say, budgets are tight, even as providers are asked to improve quality and increase attendance.
“Are we really investing enough money in our programs for them to do what we need them to do?” asked McGirt.
There has been recent good news on the funding front: A major federal program called 21st Century Community Learning Centers has awarded $23 million to programs supporting at-risk youth in Pennsylvania. Funds are being distributed to 64 school districts, charter schools, and community-based organizations across the state, including 23 in Philadelphia.
With data in hand, the group hopes to promote high-quality programing with strong appeal to children and youth. OST staff already know, for instance, that SAT prep courses are a big draw at the high school level.
The draw on a recent day at the Blanche A. Nixon/Cobbs Creek Library was the hoopla — cake and cookies, balloons, and presentations to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the library’s citywide Literacy Enrichment Afterschool (LEAP) program.
LEAP is a free drop-in program for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. According to the library, LEAP serves about 70,000 children and youth a year and offers employment to teens, who help lead programs as TLAs — teen leadership assistants.
TLA Kayla Pollard, 16, a junior at Bodine High School, recalled how she got hooked on LEAP.
“I would read every book I could, and they helped me with homework, a lot,” Pollard said. “My mom used to love it when I came here.” She hopes to study prelaw or criminal justice and forensic science in college.
Like Pollard, Justin Bridgeford, 17, a senior at Connections Academy cyber charter school, used to attend the afterschool program, then got tapped to be a teen leader. He said he still has the certificate he was awarded at the science program he attended one summer. “That was pretty fun,” he recalled.
“When kids come in, we try to help them academically but also to help them socially to express themselves so they can do better in their own everyday life,” said Bridgeford, who wants to study electrical engineering. “They may not need help with their homework, but they need a listening ear and a good role model, so that’s what we try to be.”
Che Williams, who now lives in West Philadelphia, was at the celebration with his 2-year-old daughter Adalia in his arms.
Having a safe, enjoyable place to be after school “takes away that feeling that you need to hang out in the streets,” said Williams. “Now that I think about it, I had the best grades I ever had in my life because I was around other kids doing homework, instead of being home by myself.”
This report is part of an ongoing series of stories on expanded learning time. The stories are the result of a multi-city reporting project by Catalyst Chicago and its partners: Chalkbeat New York, Chalkbeat Colorado, EdSource Today, and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.The collaborative effort was made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation, which has made More and Better Learning Time a priority in its philanthropy.