AfterZones: Creating a Citywide System

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 AfterZones: Creating a Citywide System

When children are in elementary school, their parents usually decide whether they will attend an after-school program. Middle school youth, on the other hand, are given more freedom to determine how they will spend their outof- school time, and will “vote with their feet” by choosing not to participate in activities they find boring or babyish. Unless programming is interesting, age appropriate and reasonably well run, middle schoolers typically will leave. In many programs that serve this age group, attendance is low and short lived. In order to reach large numbers of middle school youth, PASA believed that the AfterZones would have to be perceived as a “cool” place to go after school.

Before implementation began, PASA worked with a social marketing consultant (the Rescue Social Change Group) to learn how Providence’s middle school youth viewed after-school programs and what the AfterZones would have to do to attract and retain participants. According to PASA, focus groups revealed that Providence middle schoolers viewed after-school programs as “dorky” (i.e., “nerdy”) and too much like school. To counter this perception, PASA believed they needed to make sure that the AfterZones valued youth culture and offered opportunities for youth to gain new skills and experiences through activities that were interesting and fun. At the same time, in order to engage a diverse group, the local AfterZones had to offer a menu of programs varied enough to appeal to a wide range of interests.

Youth participation rates are extremely important to PASA. PASA expects program providers to fill and retain at least 60 percent of their AfterZone enrollment slots and maintain a 60 percent average daily attendance rate for the first four weeks of the session. If a program consistently fails to meet these goals, the local AfterZone Coordinating Council may decide not to fund the program in future sessions. PASA also views high levels of participation as one measure of a program’s quality. Further, because the AfterZone initiative’s mission is to provide after-school programs to middle school youth throughout Providence, PASA views enrollment and attendance numbers as the way of holding itself and the local AfterZones accountable to the city, youth, parents and AfterZone funders.

This chapter presents youth enrollment figures for the two most recent years of AfterZone programming; it then describes the strategies PASA used to recruit youth and keep them involved.38

Youth Enrollment

Table 1 shows AfterZone enrollment figures for the fall, winter and spring sessions of the 2007–08 and 2008–09 school years. The total number of students enrolled fell from the first year to the second. However, the proportion of students from the seven anchor middle schools who participated in the AfterZones remained at 44 percent of the total student enrollment, ranging from roughly one third to one half of the students in each school. PASA estimates that the AfterZones filled about 90 percent of the total number of available program slots during these two years, and a few of the popular programs had waiting lists.

Table 2 provides a breakdown of enrolled students by grade for the fall and winter sessions of the 2008–09 school year. The figures show that most participants were sixth and seventh graders. Certain schools saw enrollment numbers begin to decrease for seventh graders, but in all schools there was a sizable drop in enrollment among eighth graders.

It is difficult to compare AfterZone enrollment numbers with those of other after-school programs for middle school youth because studies rarely report enrollment in terms of the proportion of students from a school who choose to participate in the program. One exception is the study of the San Francisco Beacon Initiative, which found that 47 percent of sixth and seventh graders attending the three middle schools that hosted a Beacon Center participated in Center activities.39 This figure is less than the 53 percent of sixth and seventh grade students from the seven middle schools who attended the AfterZones.



The Challenge of Attracting Eighth Graders

The decrease in participation rates among eighth graders highlights the difficulty of crafting a program that is developmentally appropriate for this age group. Even within the relatively narrow age range of middle school youth, there are differences in the extent to which youth are attracted to the AfterZones. Youth at this age are changing rapidly, and what is appropriate and appealing to a sixth grader is not necessarily appealing to an eighth grader. Older middle school youth may also have additional options and/or responsibilities that compete for their time, such as participating in organized sports leagues and taking care of younger siblings.

During the study period, PASA staff were aware that they were having trouble recruiting and retaining eighth graders, but they had not developed any specific strategies for targeted recruitment or programming for this age group. Our impression was that, in the effort to get this ambitious and complex initiative up and running and make it attractive to sizable numbers of youth, the issue of the relative lack of eighth graders was just beginning to appear on PASA’s radar. By the end of the 2008–09 school year, plans were underway to expand the after-school initiative to Providence’s high schools, which made the need to engage older youth more pressing. At the close of data collection, PASA staff reported that they had begun to have conversations about how they could attract more eighth graders.

As the remainder of this chapter demonstrates, PASA and AfterZone staff used several different strategies to attract middle school youth and keep them involved. Given the negative perception of after-school programs Providence’s middle school youth had when the initiative began, it was clear that getting and keeping their attention would require persistence, accurate data, incorporation of youth culture, effective use of enrollment and attendance data, and consistent follow-through.

Youth Recruitment Strategies

PASA and AfterZone staff launched an intensive recruitment effort prior to each of the three school-year program cycles, using both face-to-face and phone-based strategies. In addition, to make the AfterZones attractive to youth, PASA and the program providers worked to infuse elements of youth culture into all promotional materials and program offerings.

Recruitment Fairs

The primary recruitment strategy in each local AfterZone is a recruitment fair. The fair is held in each anchor middle school a few weeks prior to the beginning of each session. Working closely with the school, AfterZone staff arrange a time and place during the school day, invite all providers to set up a booth or table, and have the students file into the cafeteria or gym to learn about the programs.

The recruitment fairs allow the youth to view program materials and talk to instructors, while giving providers an opportunity to market their programs directly to the youth. PASA stresses the importance of providers attending the recruitment fair and gives them tips (during a provider orientation) about how to showcase their program. During P/PV interviews, providers, PASA and AfterZone staff all indicated that the fair is an effective recruitment event. PASA believes that programs whose instructors don’t attend the fair are less likely to fill their enrollment slots.

PASA staff and providers believe that making a good first impression with youth is crucial. In their experience, a provider who does not make a good presentation is not likely to get many youth to sign up for their session. They identified two elements of a successful presentation. First, youth have to feel a personal connection to the program’s instructor. Consequently, as one provider noted, it is essential that the program’s instructor—and not a substitute—attends the fair, because youth are less likely to sign up for programs whose instructor they have not met. As one provider noted, “Kids need to know they can relate to the instructor.”

Second, presentations must concretely convey what youth will do during the activity. Providers reported that displays of finished products, videotapes showing youth engaged in the activity and samples of the materials used during activities are essential to giving youth a clear picture of what they will be doing. This is especially important if the program introduces activities or materials that are outside of the youth’s personal experience. For example, at one recruitment fair, the provider for Ultimate Frisbee did not demonstrate all of the different throws and moves involved in the sport, and few youth signed up for what the instructor and PASA thought would be a popular program. Staff later realized that many of the AfterZone youth had little experience with Frisbees and no familiarity with Ultimate Frisbee. Without a demonstration, the youth could not appreciate the high level of skill and athleticism the game requires or judge whether they would enjoy playing it.

Lunchtime and Classroom Recruitment

AfterZone staff also secured permission from the schools for providers to meet with students during lunchtime—an ideal recruitment opportunity for providers who do not attend the recruitment fair or who have not yet filled all their slots. In addition, if there is a thematic connection between the AfterZone program and the school-day curriculum, the site coordinator will contact a teacher to see if an in-class presentation is possible. Three providers we spoke with who had done the additional lunchtime or classroom recruitment found it useful; in fact, one provider preferred doing recruitment in the lunchroom because it allowed him to interact more intensively with the students than he could in the fair, where many providers vie for the students’ attention.

The fairs, lunchtime and classroom recruitment all involve face-to-face interactions between the program instructors and the students. They are carried out in a context in which all the middle school students can attend—a situation that would be extremely difficult to arrange outside of the school building and the school day. PASA and AfterZone anchor school staff coordinate these recruitment events, which is enormously helpful to the providers, for whom gaining access to the schools and recruiting youth on their own would be extremely challenging. PASA expressed frustration at the difficulty of getting all of the providers to attend the recruitment fairs, but interviews suggest that those who do attend find it to be extremely effective for recruiting youth.

Personal Phone Calls and Targeted Outreach

PASA strongly believes that if staff or providers make personal contact with youth, they are more likely to enroll and come to programs. Thus, PASA encourages phone calls at many stages.

If enrollment in individual programs is still low after the strategies described above have been tried, AfterZone staff and providers start recruiting over the phone. They use reports generated by to identify youth whose interests, as indicated on a form completed at the recruitment fair, match the focus of the under-enrolled program. Staff will also call youth who participated in an AfterZone program during the previous session but did not re-enroll. The 21st CCLC grant stipulates that to be counted as a regular participant, youth must attend the program at least 30 days during the program year. Thus, PASA is particularly interested in bringing back youth whose attendance is close to the 30-day level, as this can help the local AfterZone meet the attendance requirement of the 21st CCLC grant. Finally, prior to the start of the session, providers are expected to call each enrolled youth to reintroduce themselves and remind youth to attend. They are also expected to call youth who enroll but do not show up at the start of the session.

Outreach to Parents

PASA acknowledged that they have not done much outreach or targeted recruitment to parents. Rather, they have chosen to direct their recruitment efforts at youth themselves. PASA gave two reasons for this decision: First, it is very difficult to contact parents because most are not home during the day. Second, going through parents to reach youth conflicts with the initiative’s emphasis on treating youth more like young adults who can make their own decisions.

However, there is evidence that enrollment and attendance rates could improve if parents knew more about the AfterZones and how their child could benefit from attending. One provider we spoke with, whose agency had been serving the children in that particular AfterZone community for years, recounted how a parent had come to her to ask her to vouch for PASA. The provider felt the parent’s request indicated that because PASA was not a familiar entity to parents in the community, they were reluctant to send their children to the AfterZones without an endorsement from someone they trusted. She said, “This is VERY important for this community, because if they don’t know you, then they won’t [come].” Another provider believed that many children do not enroll because their parents fail to hand in the registration material in time and/or may have trouble reading or understanding the lengthy registration and various permission forms. Still another suggested that parents need help understanding how their child could benefit from participating in AfterZone programming.

Youth attend the AfterZones only with the written permission of a parent or guardian. Therefore, the comments from these providers suggest that parents might be underutilized partners in bringing youth to the AfterZones. However, because PASA wants to project the image of the AfterZones as a place that respects youth’s autonomy, PASA and its partners will have to think carefully about how best to communicate with parents.

Outreach to Teachers

PASA believes that youth participation could be boosted even further by engaging teachers in running and promoting AfterZone programs and providing incentives for youth to participate, such as grade credit and acknowledgement by teachers. To this end, in Winter 2009, PASA started sending an AfterZone newsletter to teachers, in part to help explain how the AfterZone classes can reinforce school-day learning.

Incorporating Youth Culture

An important recruitment strategy utilized by PASA involved developing an AfterZone “brand” that has currency with youth. To the extent possible, PASA tries to incorporate youth culture and style into the look and feel of the AfterZones. This approach is reflected in all promotional material and programming. Asked to describe AfterZone’s desired image, a PASA staff member replied: “It’s cool! It’s hip! It’s Providence!”

PASA encourages providers to write descriptions of their programs for AfterZone brochures in a way that informs youth about activities but also pitches them as exciting, informal and fun. One PASA staff member recalled working with a provider to come up with a more enticing name for her program. “The cooking class used to be called something like, ‘That’s Italian!’ and we changed it to the ‘Cooking and Eating Club.’ Kids relate to that: ‘Oh! I get to go and eat! That’s what I want to do!’ Just changing the name made a big difference in terms of kids’ signing up. And then, once they come, they think it’s fun. Not to bait kids into coming. They just don’t sign up because it doesn’t sound fun, or it hasn’t been pitched very well.”

Hip-hop music and dance styles are also injected into recruitment events. For example, AfterZone staff may play rap music at these events, or include hip-hop dances or positive raps at the AfterZone year-end performance shows. Hip-hop culture is also reflected in AfterZone program offerings. For example, local AfterZones offer classes in hip-hop dance and a jewelry-making class called “Bling- Bling” (hip-hop slang for jewelry). They also organize a writing program titled “Nonviolent Verses,” which is included in the program brochure with the following description: “Can you rap, sing or write poetry? If so, come join ‘Mr. Deep Positivity’ for Nonviolent Verses and show your skills. You’ll write, record and perform your raps, songs and poems. You’ll also receive a copy of your recorded work on CD, so come join the fun!”

Anyone who has spent time with young people knows that it is not always easy to anticipate what will interest them. One PASA staff member remarked:

We find that [middle school youth] as a general population are a bit fickle. We think we’ve found a topic that they’re interested in, but then we offer something new in that particular area the next session and nobody signs up for it! And we can’t figure out what happened. It’s just that, for whatever reason, it’s not cool anymore.

It is important to note, however, that the AfterZones are meant to appeal to a diverse group of youth. As a result, in addition to programs like “Bling-Bling” and hip-hop dance, local AfterZones offer more traditional programs like soccer, basketball and martial arts, which are very popular. Other activities include “NASA Robotics,” in which youth build electricity-powered robots out of Legos, and the ecology-focused “Sun Cars and Fun”—programs that appeal to more specialized interests but provide youth with valuable and unique learning experiences. (PASA reports that these programs attract small numbers of youth, but those who attend are passionate about them and attend regularly.)

Youth Retention Strategies

While it’s important to get youth to register for AfterZones, it’s equally as important—and probably more challenging—to get them to attend on a regular basis.

In-person meetings and phone calls for the purpose of recruitment continue for roughly the first three weeks of a program cycle. During this time, PASA begins to focus on attendance and retention. Once again, multiple strategies are used, informed by

Phone Calls Home to Absent Youth

Just as the recruitment events and phone calls rely on personal contact with youth, PASA focuses on personal contact to reconnect absent youth to the program. Each time a youth is absent during the session, AfterZone staff call the youth’s home to inform the parent of the absence. The program provider is expected to call the youth to address the absence and encourage him or her to return. Although the calls are a requirement in the providers’ formal agreement with PASA and they are given a small amount of funds to cover their time, PASA estimated that only about one third were calling absent youth. PASA has been searching for ways to ensure they follow up more consistently.

Working With Providers Whose Numbers Drop

During the first two to three weeks of a session, PASA staff review attendance figures generated from at least once a week. They take action if enrollment, retention or attendance rates for any program are below 60 percent. As a senior PASA staff member explained:

We HAVE to get on this early….During those first few weeks, I’ll meet with the AfterZone managers individually each week and go through their numbers. And I grill them: “Tell me the story. Why is [attrition] in this program so high? You have 16 kids enrolled, but there’s only 8 kids who’ve ever showed up. What’s happening? Who’s making phone calls on this?”

Besides making phone calls home, the AfterZone managers contact the instructor or visit the program to try to identify the reason for low attendance and work together on a solution. The same PASA staff member said:

If we see that the program is understaffed, we might say, “You have some really great content, but you need more staff for the intensity of what you’re trying to do.” Or, “You need somebody (e.g., a young City Year member) who can bring a ‘hip’ factor in to keep kids engaged in what’s going on.”

We did not collect enough data to establish whether PASA consistently followed up on attendance and retention issues. However, one AfterZone manager we spoke to in 2008 said she was sometimes frustrated because she was unable to respond to providers in a timely fashion, suggesting that time constraints and a heavy workload may limit staff’s ability to give corrective feedback to providers as often as they would like.

Creating Positive Experiences

Dressing the AfterZones in the trappings of youth culture might get youth in the door, but it isn’t enough to keep them engaged. One PASA staff member explained:

I believe that the promotional aspect of what we’re doing—the look, the feel, the posters—is 15 to 20 percent of the branding experience. The other part of it is the experience that young people have while they’re in the program. “Is this fun? Is this relevant for me? Are you treating me as if I’m mature?” Are the adults that are working with them being authentic?

With this in mind, PASA is intentional about including programs that will provide positive experiences for youth, hiring staff youth can relate to and supporting a culture of mutual respect between adults and youth.

Hiring Young Staff

PASA tries to use young people—students in high school or college, or recent college graduates— whenever possible to work with youth as assistant staff or volunteers. In addition to the site coordinator (who generally has experience and training in working with youth), each anchor school has between three and six assistant staff (called youth engagement specialists, or YES workers); four schools also have City Year AmeriCorps members who assist with logistics, distribute snacks and help youth transition from one activity to another. PASA and AfterZone staff believe that the older teens and young adult staff members are more approachable than older staff and provide middle school youth with someone to whom they can relate.

This view is supported by a study of an OST initiative in New York City, which found that hiring older teens or young adults as assistant staff was associated with higher levels of youth attendance.40 One AfterZone site coordinator commented that her high school assistants were an asset because the youth sometimes preferred to talk to “a younger guy” than to her. As she explains:

[Middle school youth] are still looking for that older person that they can really have a relationship with, and if they can’t find it with one of the lead teachers, they usually find it with the high schooler. The kids love them. [The high school assistants] open their mouths, and the kids are like…[Whispers] “You’re so cool!”

One challenge inherent in using older teens and young adults as staff or assistants is their relative lack of experience and training. P/PV was told that there was wide variation in the skill level of City Year AmeriCorps members in terms of their behavior management skills and their commitment to their job. By the 2008–09 school year, PASA had improved the way they worked with City Year members— for example, by giving them a more defined role in developing and leading activities, providing them with more intensive training and putting them under the direct supervision of the (more experienced) site coordinator.

Treating Youth with Respect

As a group, the providers we spoke with had a nuanced understanding of middle school youth’s unique developmental characteristics and said that they genuinely enjoyed working with these youth. When individual providers were asked to describe how they related to youth, many of their responses centered around the importance of treating youth respectfully and with a great deal of patience. They reported communicating their respect for youth in many different ways: allowing youth to help set ground rules for behavior; being honest and straightforward about expectations; treating youth with “the same consideration and respect that they (staff) wish to be treated with”; managing behavior without yelling; and striving to provide top-notch activities, well-trained workers, proper equipment and a good facility—“because kids can tell the difference between half-assed [where the adults are just going through the motions] and well run.”


The AfterZones succeeded in enrolling nearly half of the students who attend the seven anchor middle schools. Eighth graders, however, have proven much more difficult to reach than youth in sixth and seventh grade. PASA uses a variety of approaches to recruit and retain youth. These approaches share the following elements:

  • Close monitoring of enrollment and attendance data using to ensure a quick response if numbers drop,
  • Reliance on personal contact to encourage youth to participate, and
  • A climate that is respectful of youth and youth culture.

Attracting large numbers of youth is clearly one of PASA’s main priorities. However, participation in after-school programs will benefit youth’s development only if the programs are high quality. The next chapter looks at the quality of AfterZone programs as well as the strategies PASA has put into place to drive quality improvement.

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