AfterZones: Creating a Citywide System

Click here to download the full report:
 AfterZones: Creating a Citywide System

During the past two decades, out-of-school-time (OST) programs have become a regular feature of the American landscape. Each year, 6.5 million children and youth participate in some type of program during the out-of-school hours.8

Accompanying the growth in after-school programs, there is accumulating evidence of the developmental and educational benefits that can accrue to youth who participate. These benefits include improvements in youth’s educational outcomes (e.g., academic achievement, school behavior, attitudes toward school, attendance and educational expectations); enhanced social and emotional development (e.g., self-esteem, positive social behavior); and less risk-taking behavior.9 In one study, sustained participation in after-school programs appeared to protect middle school students from the decline in self-efficacy and school effort that was found among youth who participated less often or not at all.10

However, not all programs are effective. A consistent finding from OST evaluations is that two conditions must exist for youth to benefit: The programs must be high quality, and youth must participate over a sustained period.11 Indeed, program quality is strongly related to participation rates.12 Unfortunately, in many programs, and for certain subgroups of youth, these conditions are not consistently met.

Middle School Youth Are Underserved

As the numbers above suggest, while many youth attend OST programs and have access to these benefits, even more do not. There is compelling evidence that participation in structured organized activities dramatically declines in middle school. For example, an evaluation of after-school programs that were part of the Extended-Service Schools Initiative found that the average attendance rate, as measured by the proportion of days present to days scheduled, was 54 percent (or 1.6 days per week) for youth in sixth through eighth grades. By contrast, the rate was 67 percent (1.9 days per week) for youth in fourth and fifth grades and 73 percent (2.2 days per week) for youth in first through third grades.13 Similarly, a study of 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLCs) reported that middle school youth attended the centers an average of 0.9 days a week, whereas for elementary school children the average weekly attendance was 1.9 days.14

For OST programs, middle school youth present unique programming and staffing needs because of their growing independence and ability to choose whether or not to attend.15 Yet, youth at this age are experiencing many new challenges and need the supportive services that high-quality OST programs can provide.

The middle school years are a time of rapid physical, social, emotional and intellectual change. The transition from childhood to adolescence can be stressful. Self-esteem tends to drop as youth enter the middle school years; they begin to feel less confident in their ability to master academic subjects at the very time when pressures to achieve are increasing. School-day curricula become more rigorous and demanding, and many youth begin to experience academic failure.16 Their desire to assert their independence and make their own decisions increases, but so does their potential to engage in risky behavior, especially during unsupervised time after school.17 Low-income youth may be particularly vulnerable because their families and communities lack the resources needed to provide quality structured activities during the after-school hours.

To attract middle school youth, OST programs need to distinguish themselves from those serving younger children since middle school youth want recognition that they are no longer “young.” Middle school programs need to be designed so that youth are provided with opportunities to choose what they do and articulate their opinions and perspectives. Such programs need to allow young people to assert their emerging independence in a safe environment, and to enable youth to broaden their horizons and envision their futures.18

The Need for Coordinated Citywide Strategies

Within cities, the rapid growth in OST programs over the past two decades has often resulted in a fragmented landscape of independent efforts with precarious funding and uneven quality.19 Acknowledging the need for an efficient and effective way to increase OST providers’ capacity to sustain, improve and expand their programs—and make them available to more low-income youth—a growing number of cities are investing in systems to support after-school initiatives. In his seminal paper on citywide after-school system building, Halpern writes that such systems could improve after-school programs by: linking existing city resources and institutions (in arts, culture, sports, etc.) to after-school efforts; strengthening the funding base for after-school programming; developing capacity to collect and analyze information that will guide citywide planning, priority-setting and decision-making; and formulating a broad, coordinated strategy for strengthening program quality.20

Building on a long history of investments in OST learning, The Wallace Foundation launched an out-of-school learning initiative in 2003. The initiative was created to support citywide system-building efforts that could advance three interrelated goals: improving program quality, making programs accessible to youth who need them most and increasing youth participation so more children realize benefits. The Foundation granted funds to five cities to support their after-school system-building initiatives: Boston, MA; Chicago, IL; New York, NY; Providence, RI; and Washington, DC.

The Current Study

This report presents our analysis of the implementation of the AfterZone initiative, the system-building effort in Providence, RI (one of the five cities supported by The Wallace Foundation).The AfterZone initiative aims to provide high-quality, accessible OST services to the city’s middle school youth.

Although several other cities across America are developing after-school programming for middle school youth (including several of The Wallace Foundation’s OST learning initiative cities), the AfterZone model is unique in that it is built on a network of “neighborhood campuses” (each campus includes multiple sites in a geographically clustered area), providing participants with the opportunity to travel to programs located outside of the main program facility, the middle school. We know of no other citywide system that offers middle school students this opportunity. In addition, while many citywide initiatives aim to address quality, the AfterZone model has a particularly strong focus on continuous quality improvement. This report adds to the growing body of knowledge on how programs can improve quality.

Using a combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods, we examine the implementation of these unique features and document the initiative’s operations more generally. (A subsequent report will investigate the program’s effects.)

This report addresses the following research questions:

  • What are the key structural and operational features of the AfterZone model?
  • What strategies were effective in engaging and retaining middle school youth?
  • What mechanisms were put into place to ensure that AfterZone programs will be high quality?
  • What is the quality of AfterZone programs, and to what extent do programs incorporate practices associated with positive youth development?
  • What strategies are being considered to sustain the AfterZones beyond the start-up grant period?

The report will explore the degree to which Providence’s system-building strategy was ultimately able to provide middle school youth with easily accessible, high-quality after-school programs.

Research Methods and Study Design

The study was conducted between February 2008 and March 2009 and utilized the following data collection methods:

  • Site visits—Site visits were conducted in May 2008, December 2008 and March 2009. During each three- to four-day visit, P/PV researchers interviewed AfterZone staff, program providers, representatives of governance groups and other key stakeholders to learn about the structure and operations of the initiative and its accomplishments and challenges.
  • Program observations—Observational assessments of 76 AfterZone programs were conducted over two years. (Forty-one programs were observed in 2007–08; thirty-five programs were observed in 2008–09.) These observational assessments were conducted by on-site consultants using an assessment tool called the RIPQA, which provides ratings of youth development practices.21
  • Youth feedback surveys—Surveys that asked youth about their experiences in the AfterZones were administered to participants in the 35 programs observed in 2008–09.
  • Surveys of instructors—Surveys of the 60 instructors of those 35 programs gathered information about the training instructors received through PASA.
  • AfterZone program documents—Researchers reviewed documents generated by AfterZone leaders, such as business plans, annual reports, program brochures, the AfterZone website, and earlier evaluations.

Providence and the History of the AfterZone Initiative

Providence is a mid-sized New England city with a fast-growing, rapidly diversifying population of over 170,000—more than three quarters of whom are members of minority groups. Among the city’s children under age 18, 45 percent are Latino, 24 percent are white, 17 percent are African American, and 7 percent are Asian.22

In 2000, Providence had the third highest rate of poverty in the nation among cities with populations greater than 100,000. In fact, 45 percent of Rhode Island’s poor children live in Providence.23 In 2006, 74 percent of Providence’s public school students were eligible for free and reduced lunch.24 Like many urban areas, Providence is struggling to find ways to improve students’ academic achievement and school success. In the 2000–01 school year, the city’s dropout rate was 36 percent.25

Launching the AfterZone Initiative

In 2002, the city elected a new mayor, David Cicilline, who pledged that his administration would give top priority to improving the educational and developmental outcomes of Providence’s youth. Once elected, the mayor focused on improving OST support for youth, and he became the force behind the creation of what would become the AfterZone initiative. In May 2003, The Wallace Foundation awarded a grant to Rhode Island KIDS COUNT to lead Providence in developing a multiyear strategic plan for building a citywide system to support high-quality OST activities.

In order to win broad-based support for the plan, the mayor convened a planning group composed of leaders from both public and private youth-serving agencies, including the city’s departments of recreation and parks, the public library system, the public school district and the police department.

A 2003 report on the status of OST programs in Providence revealed that, with more than 150 agencies offering roughly 300 programs to children in both school and community settings, the city had the potential to provide supportive services to youth during the after-school hours. However, the report concluded, the city lacked the infrastructure to do so. There were “great disparities” between neighborhoods in terms of the availability and affordability of programs, and the lack of transportation made it difficult for youth in some neighborhoods to access programs. Program quality was uneven, and there was little information sharing or professional development activity that could help more programs adopt best practices. Finally, the programs did not have sufficient or stable funds to make needed improvements.26

Programs for middle school youth appeared to be especially scarce. While reliable information about the proportion of the city’s youth who participated in OST programs was not available, neighborhood scans conducted in 2004 found that most school-based programs were focused on academic remedial and homework help, and the majority of programs were aimed at elementary school youth. Only two of the seven public middle schools hosted after-school programs that offered a full range of enrichment, art and recreational activities, and three other middle schools partnered with external community organizations to provide a more limited menu of programs.27

A survey conducted in 2004 of youth and parents from 6 of Providence’s public middle schools found that almost half (48 percent) of the 400 youth surveyed did not participate in any structured OST activities on weekdays. Those students who were involved in OST activities attended, on average, 1.4 days a week, roughly consistent with low participation rates for this age group noted in other studies.28 The lack of engaging OST activities and a concern for youth’s safety were two of the most frequently cited barriers to greater participation among both the parents and youth who took the survey.29 At the same time, parents and youth indicated their interest in safe and accessible highquality after-school programs, were they to become available.

The 2004 survey findings, coupled with an awareness of the developmental vulnerabilities that characterize middle school youth, led the planning group to decide that Providence’s citywide OST initiative would begin with a focus on middle school youth.30

The group developed a three-year business plan for the initiative and created an intermediary, the Providence After School Alliance (PASA), to lead it. In 2004, The Wallace Foundation awarded Providence a five-year, $5 million grant to implement the plan.31 The overarching goal of the plan was to utilize, coordinate and strengthen existing youth programs and community resources across the city to provide middle school youth with easily accessible, high-quality after-school programs.

PASA and the planning group divided the city into five local after-school zones, or AfterZones, based on community demographics (large concentrations of low-income youth), the location of at least one public middle school that could host most of the local AfterZone’s programs, and the presence of youth-serving facilities that could offer programs outside of the middle schools. The first two local AfterZones were launched in January 2006; three more began serving youth in January 2007. In 2008, PASA and its board decided to consolidate the resources of adjoining local AfterZones, and the five AfterZones were merged into three.

PASA’s mission was to develop citywide strategies for improving the quality of after-school programs, leverage resources to expand and grow the initiative and coordinate and manage the citywide network of local AfterZones. To carry out this mission, and to sustain broad-based support, PASA worked closely with the mayor and leaders of the city’s public and private youth-serving agencies.

The AfterZone Model

Two features of the AfterZone service delivery model distinguish it from many other after-school initiatives. First, in contrast to traditional models in which programs are offered in a single school or center, each of the three local AfterZones is a neighborhood campus where services are offered in multiple sites, including middle schools, local libraries, recreational and art centers, and other community facilities. Second, PASA set out to establish a single set of standards that would define high-quality programming and incorporate these standards in all AfterZone programs.

Although they differ in terms of geography, population and proximity to participating facilities, the three AfterZones share similar service delivery models and core elements (e.g., programming, staffing and management structure). Notwithstanding these similarities, the AfterZone initiative is complex, with many interlocking parts; understanding its basic structural and operational features is essential to understanding the challenges and successes discussed throughout this report.

AfterZone’s Neighborhood Campus Service Delivery Model

Each local AfterZone is a neighborhood campus, offering programs in multiple locations, including the two or three middle schools within its borders as well as other community facilities, such as museums, recreation centers, libraries and art centers. In theory, youth can enroll in programs offered in any of the middle schools in their local AfterZone. For logistical reasons (e.g., lack of transportation)— and, in one case, a principal who was reluctant to have students from another school come into his school—not all AfterZone middle schools share programs and students.

Six of Providence’s seven public middle schools and one charter school are part of the citywide initiative. Within each local AfterZone, the middle schools play an important role, serving to “anchor” the program. Citywide, approximately 80 percent of AfterZone programs are located in the schools. The schools provide space (in classrooms, cafeterias, assembly halls and gyms) for use by community-based providers. The schools also open their doors to AfterZone program providers during the school day for recruitment events.

AfterZone Programming

During the school year, the AfterZones offer programs in three sessions that run from September through May. Programs offered in the fall and winter sessions are 11 weeks long; programs offered in the spring session last 6 weeks. In 2008, the AfterZones began offering a four-week summer program, drawing youth from across the city.

The school-year programs begin immediately after youth are dismissed from school (2:30 p.m.) and end at 5:15 p.m., Monday through Thursday. Although there are differences in the specific menu of programs each local AfterZone offers, all AfterZones have programs in the arts, life skills, sports and academic enrichment. Since September 2008, all youth who sign up for school-based programs have been required to spend one hour each afternoon in Club AfterZone, an intentional “learning time,” in which they can do homework, play literacy or math games, or work on academic enrichment projects.32 The ratio of students to staff in most AfterZone programs is 13 to 1.

Using a request for proposal (RFP) process, PASA contracts with local after-school providers (individual or agencies) to deliver programming for the AfterZones. Any after-school provider in the city can submit a grant proposal to PASA to apply for inclusion in the initiative’s menu of offerings. Providers can apply to deliver programs in up to three AfterZones or in specific schools. Selected providers receive grants of up to $5,000 per year to cover the operating costs of the program in a single AfterZone. (Providers offering programs in two AfterZones may receive up to $10,000, etc.)

Staffing and Governance Structure

Each local AfterZone includes the following staff or governance group (see Figure 1):

  • A site coordinator and assistant program staff, who are housed in each middle school. The staff coordinate and manage the daily after-school operations in the school and interface with the principal and teachers.
  • An AfterZone manager, who is based in PASA’s office. Each of the three AfterZone managers is responsible for the oversight, coordination and support of a single AfterZone, including schoolbased and off-site staff and programs. Managers also assist with professional development and quality improvement activities.
  • A local governance group, known as the AfterZone Coordinating Council, which has responsibility for overseeing the budget; reviewing provider grant applications; selecting the menu of program offerings; and providing guidance on the support of community partners and general oversight of the local AfterZone.33
  • Volunteer staff, including teams of between five and seven members of AmeriCorps City Year (a national service program for youth ages 17–24)34 and students from local higher education institutions, who help provide or support programs. Data Tracking Tool

Creating a mechanism for tracking youth participation was part of the original AfterZone business plan. Soon after its creation, PASA worked with CitySpan Technologies to customize its Internetbased data tracking system, The primary purpose of the system is to allow PASA to track daily attendance of youth across all AfterZone programs and share this information with AfterZone partners, providers, governance groups and funders. Attendance data are entered daily into a central database by staff at the middle school,35 and PASA maintains the database, closely monitoring its accuracy and completeness. The system can generate information on attendance in individual programs, local AfterZones and the citywide initiative.


As implementation progressed, PASA also used the system as a management tool—for example, to organize its end-of-day transportation and monitor its RFP grant process. Enrollment and participation data were used on an ongoing basis to identify which programs were under-enrolled or underattended and thus needed additional recruitment or assistance with retention or other supports to help them engage participants. Data were also shared and reviewed with the local AfterZone Coordinating Councils.


In the 2008–09 school year, the citywide AfterZone budget was $1,580,000, and its cost per student was $929 (based on 1,700 participants). If in-kind contributions are monetarized, the cost per student becomes $1,162. A large-scale study of the cost of quality OST programs found that the majority of programs providing services similar to the AfterZones would cost between $444 and $903 per youth per school year, including monetarized inkind resources. Unlike the AfterZones, however, the study programs rarely provided transportation.36

PASA’S System-Building Efforts

PASA put mechanisms in place for coordinating, managing, training and supporting local programs and providers citywide. In addition to, these systems included:

  • A common, centrally managed youth registration process;
  • A standard application process for selecting local programs;
  • A universal schedule of all AfterZone programs to facilitate the coordination of logistics, communication and planning;
  • A bus and shuttle system for transporting youth to and from off-site activities and to their homes at the end of the day;
  • Adoption of a set of quality standards for AfterZone programming;
  • Selection of a research-based tool to assess the implementation of these standards, and a process for helping program providers incorporate the standards into their programs; and
  • A menu of professional development and training opportunities for AfterZone providers.

Organization of the Report

Providence sought to engage the city’s middle school youth in high-quality programs after school and keep them participating at levels that would foster positive development. To succeed, the AfterZone initiative had to appeal to an age group that has traditionally been underserved, reduce barriers to participation such as lack of transportation and uneven quality, and successfully implement a service delivery model that was untested and complex. This report documents the accomplishments and challenges the initiative encountered along the way.

Chapters II and III of the report describe PASA’s strategies to attract and retain large numbers of middle school youth and keep them engaged: Chapter II explores the benefits and costs of the AfterZone multisite service delivery model, which was adopted in part to appeal to middle school youth’s developmental need for choice and independence. Chapter III describes how youth were recruited and PASA’s attempts to brand the AfterZones to appeal to older youth. Chapter IV examines the initiative’s focus on quality and continual improvement, including its quality improvement strategy, professional development opportunities and assessment outcomes. Chapter V covers PASA’s fundraising during the initiative’s first five years and efforts to sustain it beyond the initial start-up grant period. Chapter VI summarizes the initiative’s major successes and ongoing challenges.

< < Previous | Next > >