As out-of-school programs—and the expectations for them—grow, the field is struggling to identify the kind of training staff members need to meet those expectations.
A variety of efforts have sprung up across the country to define and improve the quality of after-school staff, some of which bear resemblance to the quest to improve the effectiveness of classroom teachers. But given that many out-of-school programs face limited funding and their staffs tend to be young, part-time workers who rarely commit to the job for long, questions remain over how to provide professional development in a cost-effective way.
“We have a hard enough time creating effective teaching in K-12. It’s even harder for after-school programs, whose staff are young people who can connect with kids but have high rates of turnover,” said Robert Granger, the president of the William T. Grant Foundation, which has underwritten research and other efforts to improve after-school programs. “After-school work has hours and pay for staff that make it not a career job, but staff still need ongoing coaching while they are working with youth. The best programs and systems are figuring out how to make that happen.”
While emerging research points to positive impacts after-school programs have on students’ academic performance, many in the out-of-school field believe programs should remain distinct from the classroom environment.
For some, those concerns, on top of staffing challenges, mean members of the after-school community need to be seen by others and, importantly, by themselves, as professionals who require defined core competencies. Though some of those competencies overlap with those expected of classroom teachers, others are unique to after-school.
Organizations like the National Afterschool Association and School’s Out Washington have published core-competency guides to help programs improve staff development, whereas others have seen a credentialing process, offered through higher education institutions, as a solution.
Prime Time Palm Beach, a nonprofit organization in Florida that supports initiatives aimed at improving the quality of local after-school programs, has been a part of endeavors to develop credentialing pathways for after-school workers.
The group produced coursework adopted by Palm Beach State College that students can take to earn a certificate in youth development, an associate degree in human services, or even, down the road, a bachelor’s degree in supervision and management. Noncredit coursework is also available.
Since many after-school staff members aren’t paid much and might be discouraged from paying for training, the organization is offering both scholarships and incentives to staff members now working in after-school programs to pursue the credentialing pathways at the college through the organization’s WAGE$ initiative. After-school employees can earn $300 to $2,000 if they complete coursework; those who qualify must continue to work in their respective programs while taking classes.
Similar opportunities are cropping up elsewhere. In New York City, the City University of New York supports a Youth Studies Consortium, partially financed by the city’s youth and community-development department, which provides options for certificates, coursework, and major and minor studies at local four-year and community colleges. And in California, future teachers on a number of California State University campuses teach in after-school programs as a requisite toward completing their degrees.
According to Katherine Gopie, the director of professional development at Prime Time Palm Beach, certification not only can help define the field, but also can help after-school staff members see themselves and the work they do differently. While after-school staff have never been considered at the same level as teachers, their work is no longer being thought of as “babysitting” and is starting to be considered as part of a career, she said.
“By professionalizing the after-school field, we are educating both the after-school practitioners and the community at large that after-school is a profession and a field,” Ms. Gopie said. “We provide more than just a safe place for kids to be in the out-of-school hours; we provide learning opportunities that help equip young people with the necessary skills to not only reinforce what was learned in the school day, but to be productive citizens, innovators, and leaders.”
Professionalizing after-school work has meant working with professionals in other fields and community partners who may be able to provide guidance. Museums, for instance, have often provided workshops and training for classroom teachers; now, some are reaching into the after-school realm.
The Boston Children’s Museum has been offering professional-development workshops to after-school workers since the late 1990s. Museum instructors teach such practitioners how to deliver the curriculum for innovative science and engineering lessons, with such titles as ‘raceways and roller coasters’ or ‘paper bridges,’ and how to reach their students better.
While there are similarities to good classroom teaching, after-school instruction needs to be distinct, said Tim Porter, the museum’s project director. In short, after-school instruction should delve deeper into subjects and provide a wider context for school day subject-matter content, he said, making the learning in school and out of school complement rather than supplement each other.
“Content learning in after-school likely doesn’t mean a whole lot to children when presented out of context. It’s knowing how to apply that content, understanding why it matters, and why they’re learning it that helps them get it, adopt it, and retain it,” Mr. Porter said. “If classrooms focus on content learning, and after-school programs focus on skill-building and contextualized application of that content, then we have a system where they work in concert to make kids’ learning matter and make it stick.”
While the museum recommends that staff members attend several workshops to truly master the concept of changing instruction in their after-school programs, given tight budgets, paying for multiple workshops is not always feasible. In addition to workshops, the Boston Museum supports the website Beyond the Chalkboard, built on a 480-page multidisciplinary curriculum handbook called “KIDS Afterschool,” described as the first free, online multidisciplinary curriculum created specifically for after-school educators. After-school instructors anywhere in the world have access to lesson plans and resources; the site has had more than 50,000 page views and in excess of 9,100 downloads of the curriculum since 2009.
While digital learning can’t truly substitute for face-to-face professional development, Mr. Porter said, it does provide more opportunities for practitioners to access valuable content.
But because of the challenges of cost and scalability, many think the best way to improve the quality of after-school staff members is by having programs self-evaluate and self-improve.
State after-school networks, like those in Arkansas and New Jersey, have put support behind building self-assessment tools that include sections on staff evaluation and professional development. And most recently, a self-evaluation study found the Youth Program Quality Intervention model, a system of training and assessment for out-of-school programs developed by the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality at the Forum for Youth Investment, a Washington-based nonprofit that supports youth-development initiatives, had positive effects on improving staff instruction and program quality.
According to Nicole Yohalem, the director of special projects at the forum, the model is designed to provide an affordable and scalable means for programs to help themselves become better, particularly through staff development. Around 2,400 active sites use the model, and an estimated 17,000 staff members are served, at a cost of $250 to $2,000 per site.
While increasing the number of networks and sites seeking to improve the quality of their staffs, Ms. Yohalem and others say the only way to sustain and scale up after-school professionalization is for programs to set more requirements to evaluate their employees and provide training.
Although some states, such as Missouri and Washington, include staff evaluations and professional development as part of overall program evaluation mandated to maintain public funding, such measures are not the standard.
“The solution [to improving after-school programs],” said Nancy Peter, the director of the Out-of-School Time Resource Center at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, “is not to put funding solely into the program itself, but on building a sense of professionalism and professional identity among staff.”
Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2012 edition of Education Week as Out-of-School Field on Hunt for Training