The tug-of-war between the priorities of quantity of and quality of out-of-school time programs has finally crossed the mud pit.
With millions of children still without a place to go afterschool, this conversation has vacillated between the two opinions. But when research shows that children in low-quality programs have no better outcomes than children who are unsupervised during the same time, quality must be the focus (Child Trends, 2010-19). Research recently published in Expanding Minds and Opportunities: Leveraging the Power of Afterschool and Summer Learning for Student Success (Peterson, 2013) expands on the evidence of the impact of excellent programs, giving, even more, steam to the argument for quality first.
We cannot be fooled into thinking there are vast numbers of programs meeting high-quality standards. There are out-of-school time sites tucked in community centers, apartment complexes, faith based organizations, and even on school campuses that lack the deep quality needed to truly create lasting positive impact. With such ample and ongoing research, why is it that there are so many that are not? Certainly, the lack of importance is not to blame.
There have not been any playground squabbles over the technical definition of quality. Succinctly, high-quality out-of-school time programs improve a child’s intellectual, creative, physical and emotional development in a safe, nurturing environment. The more granular explanations of this definition are found in standards documents adopted in many communities, where best practices have spelled out expectations for everything from safety and health of children, to programming and leadership, to the condition of the organization hosting the program. With the growing availability of these documents, as well as the growing number of conferences, workshops, websites, the education of staff does not have to be a barrier to building quality. So what is?
While the details of best practices define the technical appearance of quality, much like the hollow Tin Man, the heart is often missing.
Quality improvement systems, such as DASN’s Program Quality Initiative, among others, improve the programs offered to children. This is accomplished by working with out-of-school time sites to conquer benchmarks of quality performance through education of the staff, resources to close gaps, and networking opportunities designed to encourage change and enlist peer support. Our organization continues to create more efficient systems of quality improvement and in doing so, identifies barriers to improvements. What we are learning is that the most needed ingredients in the pursuit of quality include value, purpose, and intent, or in one word, heart.
This is the one ingredient in a quality program that cannot be taught. It is an innate understanding of the preciousness of each child as an individual and the acknowledgment that our time to make a difference with each is limited. While it seems silly to state it, staff working in programs need to value children. It is not uncommon to find staff who work with children during these hours because it fits a schedule or is convenient. While those reasons for work are valid, without the value of children being a leading reason for working in a program, quality suffers.
Programs are often created because the leadership values children, but this does not always carry through all organizational levels. Best practice tools may quantify indicators of valuing children, such as avoiding negative communication, encouraging participation, and organizing a child-friendly space. It is more difficult, though, to do the same with indicators like being a humble leader for and enjoying time with children. Consider these questions to help determine if value is present in your program:
- Was your program started because of a firm belief system?
- How is the value of children communicated across organizational levels?
- Does your program have a stated list of beliefs that help guide decision-making?
- Are staff members hired because of their passion for making a difference with children?
Organizations use mission statements to communicate the purpose for program existence, such as to promote academic achievement or healthy lifestyles, or to expose children to new concepts and experiences. While multi-service organizations may have a broad mission statement, a narrower one must be created for the afterschool or summer experience and should be made clear to all levels of staff. Each idea, activity, or resource should support the purpose of the program.
- Does your mission statement refer directly to the program component that serves school-age children?
- Are program goals set for the attainment of that purpose?
- Are resources in place to support those goals?
- Do your staff members know the mission and understand their role in the attainment of it?
When decisions are made that reflect value and purpose; that is, when there is resolution and determination that every interaction communicates the preciousness of a child and seeks to fulfill the purpose of the program, that program is operating intentionally. Leadership sets the tone as organizational decisions around such things as funding sources and board members are made with (or without) consideration of valuing children and supporting the program’s purpose. Every decision beyond that should do the same, using the intentional question, “Does this whatever communicate our value of a child and/ or help us achieve our mission?”
- Is your program involved in a quality improvement system that helps make decisions intentional?
- Do all levels of staff filter decisions with the intentional question?
There is no doubt quality out of school time experiences make a difference for children.
There is no doubt building a quality program involves time, patience, and resources. With the pressure from funding sources demanding more accountability, the tendency is to move toward compliance using checklists of quality indicators instead of deep, intentional efforts to grow quality. We face the danger of creating surface quality instead of a sustained culture of quality when this becomes the case. While surface quality appears to put best practices in place, programs lose traction with staff turn over, with key decisions that do not reflect value and purpose, or with the expansion of services. But when value, purpose, and intent permeate the program’s culture, that program reaches a level of quality that is transformative for children. And that is exactly what millions of our communities’ children need.
For breakfast I had cinnamon raisin oatmeal!
Author: Terri Marini