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In keeping with the theme of this issue, assessing and improving quality in after school programs, Priscilla Little from HFRP asked leading experts in the after school field to identify the single most important ingredient necessary to create, sustain, and improve systems to ensure quality out-of-school time programs for all youth.

Bob Granger, President, William T. Grant Foundation
Program quality is driven by what line and supervisory staff do—the choices they make about materials, activities, and schedules; the role they create for youth; and their behavior with youth and with each other. Little formal preservice preparation for line staff, and their rather high turnover, are inevitable. Therefore, my suggestion for improving quality is to rely on differential staffing. Hire line staff who have personal characteristics and social skills that will help them to be viewed as significant by the youth. Then help line staff “deliver” by hiring and retaining a small cadre of staff who can model quality programming and effectively coach line staff on-site.

An-Me Chung, Program Officer, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation
Assuming sufficient funding is available, ongoing and regular professional development of after school educators is a critical ingredient in developing effective and sustainable after school programs. Professional development should include strategies and content for integrating learning opportunities that support cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development. Intentional linkages to school-day curriculum and educators should be made, and practitioners should become adept at working with participants of different ages, ethnicities, and cultures, as well as with those that have special needs. Professional development should also involve continuous improvement and assessment of participant progress, hiring and retaining qualified staff, using community resources effectively, engaging families and participants in program planning, and exercising effective program management skills.

Deborah Craig, President, YouthNet of Greater Kansas City
Staffing is the key ingredient. Program quality boils down to effective interactions between staff and youth and the environment the staff creates. If those interactions are lacking (e.g., adults are not interacting with youth) or are of poor quality (e.g., the adults belittle or yell at youth), no program, research-based or not, can be effective. In fact, the program could be detrimental. To better understand poor staff-youth interactions, use a self-reflection process that begins by asking, Is pay sufficient to secure staff that can develop good skills? Is staff oriented regarding performance expectations, then regularly trained? Do supervision and employee evaluations ensure that what staff has learned is implemented into practice?

Beth M. Miller, Miller Midzik Research Associates
Investment is the foundation for an array of related efforts: bringing everyone to the table, making programs accessible to all children, creating data-driven program improvement efforts, developing part-time staff into after school leaders, creating real jobs with adequate pay and benefits, doing the research that will guide effective practices, and mobilizing advocates to build an even stronger system over time. With energy, commitment, and know-how, people in our field can, and do, create incredible programs out of almost nothing. However, it takes substantial investment to construct a system that will sustain such programs and nurture more opportunities for youth across the community.

Carla Sanger, President and CEO, LA’s BEST
Creating an environment of staff support and development must be central, and more organic than the traditional staffing model. Too often, it is assumed that we can produce high quality programs if we have staff who demonstrate a particular credential or core set of competencies. Emphasis is placed on knowledge of ages and stages, classroom management, use of equipment, etc. In fact, whether these things result in high quality programs is largely dependent on the social context of a program. The single most important aspect of building a context that nurtures and energizes staff is that they listen to, and be guided by, their own voices. The main goal in staff training should be to draw out what staff already know and think, in order to engage them in a process of developing new goals and initiatives that they will identify with and support.

Dale Blyth, Director, Center for 4-H Youth Development
The most critical ingredient for creating, sustaining, and improving systems to ensure quality is intentionality. Far too often we assume people know what is meant by quality. This will only change if we become intentional about the meaning of quality, its importance, and the critical factors that underlie it. Systems that become intentional about quality use it as a driving concept in their work. They train around it, they monitor it, and they help their clients recognize it. When successful, this intentionality creates an ethos of youth development that permeates the work of the system and makes quality “job one,” as one corporate advertising slogan goes.

Karen Pittman, Executive Director, Forum for Youth Investment
Creating, sustaining, and improving systems to ensure program quality requires many things, but the catalytic ingredient, especially in times of scarcity, is a systemic sense of efficacy. Quality improvement is not a zero-sum proposition. The result is better programs and better outcomes, but the process is stressful, even when resources are available. The careful work done by intermediaries (such as Community Networks for Youth Development in San Francisco, and Kansas City YouthNet), to create climates where staff can debate standards, agree to assessments, converse with funders, and find low- and no-cost improvement strategies, is the essential work that must be done to ensure that everyone owns the quality improvement goal.

Heather Weiss, Director, Harvard Family Research Project
Building an effort to improve the quality of existing programs means investing in developing standards and benchmarks that emphasize capacity building at the systems level. From the systems-building work now happening in early childhood, we know that this capacity building must include evaluation, professional development, and strategies for compensation. Additionally, it must include building capacity to do data-driven continuous improvement at the program and the community level. A key component of building capacity is being selective and strategic about the way one uses the complex research and evaluation knowledge base, not only to inform policy decisions, but also to feed into programs for continuous improvement. This approach to building capacity for quality improvement involves moving beyond the traditional research and development model to recognition of the proliferation of out-of-school time programs that need quality enhancement.

Priscilla M. D. Little, Project Manager, HFRP

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