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Dishon Mills from the Boston Public Schools describes a new quality assessment tool that is designed to engage and facilitate collaboration among OST programs, schools, and families.

Historically, Boston's out-of-school time (OST) field has been driven by community-based organizations (CBOs), yielding a richness and diversity of services not found in many other urban centers. Upon receiving its first 21st Century Community Learning Center grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 1999, the Boston Public Schools (BPS) honored this tradition by establishing the Boston Community Learning Center (BCLC) initiative. The BCLC's mission is to cultivate meaningful collaborations among schools, community-based organizations, and families. By creating and supporting high-quality, comprehensive OST services aligned to local learning standards, BCLC aims to foster academic success and healthy development in children and youth.

After operating BCLC successfully for several years, we sought to adopt a tool to foster quality in the BCLC after school programs, as well as in the collaborations with families and communities on which these programs are based. Because of BPS's belief that no one group of stakeholders can be unilaterally responsible for ensuring youth success, the tool needed to treat parents, after school program providers, and school staff as equal partners and to be relevant to all three groups. Marta Gredler, Executive Director of the Boston Full-service Schools Roundtable, and I conducted a scan of existing evaluative tools but found none that fit our specific needs. We therefore convened a team to construct our own tool.

In July of 2004, the first edition of that tool, The Roadmap to the 21st Century: Guidance for School, Community, and Family Collaborations, was completed. The Roadmap provides a set of minimum quality “guideposts,” or standards, for family, school, and CBO collaborations, as well as other elements of program quality. The guideposts intentionally place responsibility on all stakeholders—families, OST professionals, and school staff—and the tool is designed to catalyze continuous quality improvement by fostering improved collaboration among these stakeholders.

The guideposts are arranged within six content categories: child and youth development, learning, partnerships, family engagement, staff, and administration. Although collaborations are embedded in each of these categories, they are emphasized in the partnerships and family engagement categories. For example, the partnerships category includes shared vision, input and shared responsibility, and effective resource identification and use. The family engagement category includes guideposts about how well programs share information about individual youth, connect families with community resources, and solicit family input.

To facilitate the self-improvement process, we developed a digital self-assessment tool for The Roadmap. Because quality improvement is a gradual process, stakeholders should begin by assessing the most relevant sections and develop their activities over time. This allows collaborators to take as narrow or wide a focus as they deem feasible. Representatives from the program staff, school staff, and families each individually complete the self-assessment. (Programs that serve older youth are encouraged to include them in the process as well.) For each guidepost, users rate themselves on the following scale: aware of importance, progressing toward indicator, meeting indicator, and able to share lessons learned. The digital tool automatically tabulates the results and presents them in two formats: a) a graph that plots the total score for each of the six major categories that allows the user to identify categories most in need of improvement and b) a set of tables that provides the total scores for each of the categories, along with a detailed accounting sheet that summarizes the ratings on each guidepost.

With this feedback in hand, the individual partners then meet to discuss their findings and assess their current status. Together, the group sets detailed quality improvement goals and priorities for the coming year. This process gives each stakeholder an equal voice and promotes mutual understanding and commitment to the quality improvement process.

To enable all parties to be open and honest, BPS made the decision to separate quality improvement efforts from compliance monitoring. We intentionally omitted an observation tool from the first edition of The Roadmap because we wanted the focus to be on self-directed incremental development from within the collaboration. However, because external observations can be useful (and are often required by various initiatives), we are considering developing an observation tool for inclusion in future editions of The Roadmap.

The Roadmap was field-tested at all 27 BCLC sites during the 2005–2006 academic year. The tool tested well, helped stakeholders to target areas for improvement, and enabled all sites to improve by 5 to 15 points in less than a year (5 points is the equivalent of half a letter grade). Engaging in the process enabled each site to identify an area of weakness and develop a strategy for addressing the issue. For example, one elementary school experienced challenges in getting its advisory council to coalesce because the parents, after school staff, and faculty representatives operated as free agents and did not see the need to share information and resources. Using The Roadmap changed the dynamics of the council by first informing all stakeholders about the nature of true partnership. Second, filling out the self-assessment identified weaknesses in the collaboration and showed that the weakest area was input and shared responsibility. As a result, the school restructured its advisory council to foster more dialogue and allow for more shared ownership of decisions. BPS intends to make The Roadmap available to the public starting in October 2006.

Dishon Mills
After School Programs Coordinator
Boston Public Schools
Department of Extended Learning Time, Afterschool, and Services
443 Warren Street
Dorchester, MA 02121
Tel: 617-635-1578

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