As more after-school programs provide academic enrichment for students, providers are turning to specialized training to help staff members demonstrate that they’re qualified to guide lessons.
Providers are also turning to students on nearby college campuses to help infuse lessons on topics such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and social-emotional learning into the after-school experience.
“The same kind of pressures that we’re seeing within the education system are coming to after school too,” said Rebecca Carlin, the executive director of the Wisconsin Youth Company.
The growth of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, a $1.2 billion federal grant program, under the No Child Left Behind Act signaled a shift in priorities for out-of-school programs. The 21st Cenutry grants fund out-of-school academic enrichment opportunities for students, particularly those who attend high-poverty and low-performing schools. And the emphasis on academics continues to spread among private providers, many of which work closely with schools and districts.
The Wisconsin Youth Company, which serves about 1,500 students in Dane and Waukesha counties, encourages students to dabble in the arts, science, sports, foreign languages, and other interests.
“We know that after school is a really important, valuable time when we can work on a lot of those skills—and there is an expectation that we’re doing that,” Carlin said.
To help out-of-school providers meet the rising demand, the National AfterSchool Association has established a professional-development-credentialing system to recognize skills and develop interests that workers already bring to the job. Instead of professional-development workshops or college courses, the system relies on quick-turnaround micro-credentials that allow individuals to demonstrate mastery or competence in an subject.
Participants can select the micro-credential badges from a catalog aligned to their personal goals, professional needs or organizational priorities.
The micro-credentials are available to employees who want to lead STEM lessons. The micro-credentials can certify their ability to faciliate lessons and help students connect the lessons to their own lives.
In the coming years, the association plans to add credentials in social-emotional learning, literacy, digital learning, and emotional intelligence for program leaders. Once employees earn the micro-credentials, they can be displayed on digital resumes, social media platforms, and in email signatures.
For providers, training staff can be a costly and time-consuming experience. The micro-credentialing system could potentially save employers money and time, especially at a time when some providers are struggling with staff recruitment and retention. After-school programs traditionally have very high turnover.
To meet state licensing requirements, Wisconsin Youth Company staff typically undergo 40 hours of training before the start of the class and another 30 during the school year. The organization pays for employee coursework and offers paid time off work to complete training or classes.
“We’re encouraging professional development and learning that focuses on competency rather than seat time,” said Heidi Ham, the vice president for programs and strategy at the National AfterSchool Association.
The micro-credentials could eliminate red tape and help after-school programs get more experienced, enthusiastic staff members working with students, Ham said. “We’re hoping that this catches on because we know that competent people” are what makes programs effective.
The Wisconsin Youth Company trains staff on a range of topics, from connecting with families to ensuring all students, even those with mental and physical disabilities, are able to participate in programs.
“It’s very specific,” Carlin said. “So unless somebody is graduating with an education degree, they might not have” the required training.
That may be why more after-school programs are also turning to college students, specifically those majoring in education and social work, to staff their programs.
In Connecticut, EdAdvance has formed relationships with administrators in the education and social work departments at Western Connecticut State University to hire college students who need experience teaching and interacting with K-12 students.
Having aspiring educators with some college experiences can help improve the experience for children and families—who need and want more from their after-school programs, said Tracey Lay, chief talent and collaboration officer for EdAdvance, a regional education service center that provides before- and after-school programs at nine school systems in western Connecticut.
“We definitely started as a care program and in all honesty, we still are a care program first and foremost because we are there for the parents that are working, primarily,” Lay said. “But over the years we realized that it needs to be more than a care program.”
EdAdvance also tries to hire retired educators who are still looking to work a few hours per day.
“They’re almost like grandparent figures for the kids, but yet they have the kind of experience and professionalism that we want,” Lay said.
Site managers for Right at School, an Evanston, Ill.-based before- and after-school program provider, often head to college campuses to scout for employees, said Michele Wilkens, the organization’s chief academic officer.
“We start by finding people who are passionate about working with children, because that’s one of the few things you can’t train,” Wilkens said.
Giving staff the tools to empower themselves also helps them empower young people.
“We’re in the people development business,” said Irma Velasco-Nuñez, the director of knowledge management at the Boys & Girls Club of America. “That holds true for our adult staff as well as for the youth.”
Beyond ‘Gym and Swim’
After-school programs across the country have moved beyond the “gym and swim” model to focus almost exclusively on academics.
Every year, all Right at School employees participate in professional development on curriculum instruction.
Part of that training is on what Wilkens calls “disguised learning,” with an intense focus on math and literacy that’s delivered in a different manner than what students see during regular school hours.
“Yes, you can teach them after school, but you have to make it embedded with hands-on fun” Wilkens said. “As far as they know, they’re having a blast.”
The Boys & Girls Club of America has its own training program for managers and employees, but leaders are also encouraged to cultivate employee input to address local needs.
Finding the right staff members, starts with putting together the job description, said Erin Cunningham, the national director for strategy execution at the Boys & Girls Club. Seeking someone with an interest in STEM may be too broad. Narrowing the search to people who have experience with computer programming or hands-on science may make the difference, she said.
Whether they’re undergraduate students or seasoned professionals, the best after-school employees are “engaged in continual learning themselves because that’s the type of skills that we want to bring to young people, that love of learning, the curiosity,” Cunningham said.
Coverage of afterschool learning opportunities is supported in part by a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 09, 2019 edition of Education Week as Who’s Teaching Students After School Lets Out?