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Mark Carter, Executive Director of the National School-Age Care Alliance (NSACA), describes how the NSACA accreditation process helps after school programs build evaluation capacity.

For the past decade, the National School-Age Care Alliance (NSACA) and its planners have focused on accrediting after school programs—to assure parents, children, policymakers, and funders that after school program quality meets clear developmental and safety standards. Currently, over 400 programs nationwide hold NSACA accreditation. The key to accreditation is an ongoing self-study process requiring a serious effort to explore how the entire program delivers services to children.

The NSACA accreditation process, developed jointly with the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) and the U.S. military, involves a formal, structured sequence of discussion, analysis, and improvement planning, which involves parents, representative community members, staff, host agencies, and others. NSACA supplies manuals and instruments for this self-study, which guide these participants through the 36 NSACA Keys to Quality (see box). The purpose of the process is to install self-conscious evaluation as part of program management to address various problems and mobilize broad organizational participation. The ultimate goal of the NSACA accreditation process is to build capacity for program improvement.

NSACA Accreditation Standards:
36 Keys to Quality

The NSACA standards were written to describe the best practices in out-of-school time programs for children aged 5 to 14. They are intended for use in group settings where children participate on a regular basis and where the goal of the program is to support and enhance overall development. NSACA standards are organized into 36 Keys to Quality, under six categories: (1) human relationships, (2) indoor environment, (3) outdoor environment, (4) activities, (5) safety, health, and nutrition, and (6) administration. For each key NSACA has developed guiding questions, specific standards, and concrete examples. For a complete listing of the standards, see

Accreditation for Program Improvement
NSACA accredited programs regularly report how the accreditation process requires real collaboration, genuine creativity, and cross-disciplinary decision making. Involving participants of a program in its self-study creates an interpersonal network that accommodates change, supports children, and respects the contributions of each member of the team. As one program reports, “Staff feel valued and included, two important factors in staff retention and performance.”

The ultimate goal of the NSACA accreditation process is to generate a sustainable self-improvement process for out-of-school time programs. In this regard it shares many similarities with evaluation for continuous improvement. Reflecting on the guiding questions provided in the accreditation tools, program stakeholders, including staff, families, and participants, ask themselves the following questions about each standard:

  • Why is this standard important?
  • What are we currently doing to meet this standard?
  • What do we wish we were doing to better meet this standard?

This process engages stakeholders, collects data to answer key stakeholder questions, and then provides a platform for using the results to improve the program—all key elements of continuous improvement. Through the NSACA accreditation process, programs build the internal capacity they need to begin this self-reflection process and continue to use data for program improvement long after they have earned accreditation.

Mark Carter, Executive Director
National School-Age Care Alliance
1137 Washington Street
Boston, MA
Tel: 617-298-5012
Fax: 617-298-5022

For more information about NSACA, the NSACA standards, and NSACA program improvement and accreditation, visit or call at 800-617-8242. For more information on continuous improvement evaluation see The Evaluation Exchange, Vol. VIII, No. 2, Fall 2002. Click here to view archived issues.

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