A Place to Grow and Learn

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 A Place to Grow and Learn

If the goal is to expand high-quality opportunities for more children, then the first reality cities must confront is what longtime OST researcher Robert Halpern has called the “heterogeneous, decentralized and fragmented”x shape that has defined OST since its earliest days. Unlike public education, there is no model for building an effective OST system. Indeed, defining what a well-functioning, coordinated OST “system” consists of – and how to plan, operate and sustain it – remains very much an early work in progress in the five cities in our initiative.

The typical decentralized pattern of OST provision has advantages worth preserving, Halpern and others point out – most notably, a diversity of activities and approaches from a wide variety of community, cultural and arts providers. But it also poses serious challenges for those who want to make OST better and more equitable on a wide scale. In very few cities has any leader or organization assumed permanent responsibility for planning the changes required or ensuring the necessary resources.

Even where such leadership exists, the information needed to guide planning and implementation is typically unreliable, irregularly gathered and of little use for monitoring program participation or quality. And the more usual program-by-program approaches to improving OST frequently leave entire neighborhoods with little or no programming, while sending scarce funding to organizations that may not consistently deliver quality service.

“When it’s not coordinated, the poorest kids lose out,” says Mary Ellen Caron, who as commissioner of the Department of Children and Youth Services in Chicago helps oversee the Wallace initiative in that city. “Someone has to be on the ball to figure out where programs are and to be able to get them to the poorest children.”

Halpern also writes that the field’s current lack of coherence stymies development of strategies to enhance OST broadly: “Thus, for instance, the tasks of increasing supply and strengthening program quality are often complicated by lack of citywide capacity for collecting and analyzing information, planning, and priority-setting. Providers cannot find, and sometimes are unaware of, resources that would be helpful to their work. Potential funders may not be sure where or how to focus their investments.”xi

The citywide, coordinated approach takes time and has many unanswered questions. It also faces numerous obstacles – not least, the often limited organizational capabilities of OST providers to act on demands for better quality. It involves new, unaccustomed activities for cities, such as sustained planning. It requires broad, durable support from top public and private leaders. And its long-term success will require more resources than are typically available.

Despite such uncertainties and questions, we are confident that a coordinated, citywide effort, which informs the whole community about the value of OST and brings together a range of different interests, has promise as a means of expanding the benefits of OST. Furthermore, we see a sizable “market” among the nation’s cities and their leaders for learning more about such an approach. Some 220 cities are connected to the National League of Cities’ Afterschool Policy Advisors Network, which is working with Wallace to share information about OST.

By “embedding” the idea of high-quality OST into the life of the city, we believe that sustainable, coordinated efforts will ultimately be a pathway for making good programming that’s available to all children a staple of urban life.

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