Randy Barth, the chief executive officer of THINK Together, one of the largest out-of-school-time providers in the country, helped grow the organization from a small, after-school program based in Southern California in the mid-1990s to one serving 100,000 students in more than 400 locations today, elementary through high school. In addition to providing after-school programs, THINK Together (which stands for Teaching, Helping, Inspiring and Nurturing Kids) has now expanded into summer programming, partnering with the National Summer Learning Association and the Walmart Foundation. They also provide early learning and tutoring services.
THINK Together’s programs apparently have had an impact on student learning, based on independent evaluations that found participating students achieve proficiency in English/language arts and mathematics tests at a rate nearly double that of their peers. Working with more than 30 districts and a number of community partners, while ensuring consistent program quality as the organization grows, can be a bit tricky, however. Here’s what Barth had to say about THINK Together’s strategy and core components, aligning out of school programs with the school day, and building community partners.
EW: What do you see as the core components of the THINK Together model; what makes it distinct?
RB: Like many OST programs, we are focused on the whole child so we have balanced programs that include academic support, physical fitness, and enrichment. We also focus on youth development and particularly student voice and student leadership. We are more focused on the academic-support component and aligning with what is happening during the regular school day to create a seamless day for students. In that sense, we are more aligned with the emerging extended-learning crowd and less so with the traditional after-school providers.
EW: How have you navigated relationships with the districts you partner with? What have been the biggest challenges?
RB: THINK Together is a blend of business people and educators. We hire senior leaders from school districts who come from that setting and understand how to work with districts and support their needs. As to challenges, like everybody else, we have to navigate the milieu of local school board politics, relatively high superintendent turnover, and so forth. Where we are most successful, not surprisingly, is working with districts where there is stable leadership that is focused on student success. In districts where the focus is on pleasing the adults—taking care of this set of organizations, or that group of employees, or these political relationships—we struggle.
EW: Many OST programs have looked to community partners to help enhance quality of services and improve their resource base. What do you credit as THINK Together’s successful strategy in securing good relationships with many partners?
RB: Because we have focused plans that are outcome-oriented and aligned with the goals of each school district, we can attract partners that are interested in investing in those outcomes or whose programs complement and align with those outcomes. It is a demand-driven model that focuses on supporting the needs of the schools. Much of the OST field is a supply-driven model, i.e., an organization is passionate and wants to do something and they find people that want that thing and provide it for them. So, we are a little different in that regard. In addition, we have some promising results that have allowed us to attract more resources and partner with more school districts.
EW: What changed (or didn’t) in your expansion to include summer program offerings? How is summer learning different from after-school programs? The same?
RB: Our expansion five or six years ago just happened to coincide with a number of our district partners moving away from a year-round school calendar and back to a traditional or modified traditional calendar. More recently, most of our district partners have had to eliminate traditional summer school as a result of California’s budget cuts. We have been fortunate enough to land some federal 21st Century Community Learning Center grants, along with some major private philanthropy from places like the Walmart Foundation, the Irvine Company, and the David & Lucile Packard Foundation to fund summer programs. We built a national model program in collaboration with Santa Ana Unified School District that blends district teachers delivering the academic components and THINK Together staff delivering the physical-fitness and enrichment components. The components are standards-based and integrated around themes (i.e., last summer’s middle school programs were organized around a Hunger Games theme) in a model that very much resembles what schools are looking for as they begin to implement the common-core standards. Many of our summer programs are also full-day programs, which is different from the school year.
EW: As you have grown in size and spread to new (and diverse) communities, how have you ensured consistency of program quality and curriculum is maintained, yet meets the needs of the population served at each new site?
RB: We have found that scale matters. Once an organization gets past a handful of sites, it takes systems to support consistent implementation across those program sites. We believe that one of the reasons that the OST field struggles with program quality is that many organizations lack the capacity to build the necessary systems because the organizations (or this division of them) are too small. At THINK Together, we have developed a strong centralized program office (that includes data and evaluation), which collaborates with regional hub offices for local implementation. Because of our size, we can spread those costs over a large number of sites. We have common curriculum and have developed a site-assessment rubric that maps out the program design and components. Then we hire, train, and coach against that rubric. Within this framework, we aim for a 70%-30% split between consistency across our 400-plus program sites and adapt to local needs, while leveraging the particular talents of site-based staff. So, counter-intuitively, we have strengthened program quality and become more consistent as we have become larger.
Photos (from top): Randy Barth, program site photos, courtesy of THINK Together.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Beyond School blog.