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Denise Huang describes her work with the National Partnership for Quality Afterschool Learning to identify best practices for learning in after school programs, including characteristics of effective professional development.

After school programs promote enrichment and social development, especially for underserved, at-risk populations. Following the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, national attention has turned to after school programs' potential to supplement academic learning. Research into 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) has found considerable variation in after school programs' structure and curricula, as well as the extent to which they focus on academic content.

In 2004, in an effort to identify and incorporate exemplary practices into after school programs, the Department of Education commissioned the National Partnership for Quality Afterschool Learning.¹ Over a 5-year period, we at the Partnership will identify and validate promising and exemplary after school practices and offer strategies to address two continuing challenges: (a) ensuring that programs offer high quality, researched-based academic content using appropriate methods; and (b) ensuring that programs attract and retain students.

We have engaged in a study of promising after school sites and their practices, the development of tools and models, the delivery of technical assistance within state education agencies, and partnerships with federal and state education agencies that provide training and support for the adoption of promising practices.

To determine the sample for the study, we identified programs based on expert recommendations, 21st CCLC sites' evaluation data, and sites' impact on student achievement. We visited a wide range of programs—both 21st CCLC sites and others—and selected a representative sampling of promising practices that showed considerable impact on student performance. The first year of data, from 2004, includes 11 sites with promising literacy practices and 7 sites with promising mathematics practices. Data in subsequent years will focus on programs with promising practices in other areas, including science, technology, homework, and the arts. By 2007, we will have visited up to 60 after school sites throughout the United States.²

We are currently analyzing data from the study's first year. Among the program characteristics we are studying are those related to staffing and professional development. Findings highlight the importance of program management components—such as leadership skills, support, and staff capital (i.e., personal characteristics, relational skills, and subject matter knowledge)—to enhance the quality of instructional practices in specific academic subjects and to facilitate student engagement and retention. So far, we have identified the following characteristics of promising programs:


  • Strong program leadership facilitated relationships among and between school, district, and local communities.

  • Site coordinators and staff tended to be experienced. Site coordinators had worked in the after school field for a mean of 4.6 years and at their current sites for 4.3 years. Staff members had worked in the field for an average of 3.6 years and at their current sites for 3.5 years.

  • This group of staff tended to be more educated than after school staff in general, with the majority of staff members holding bachelor's or master's degrees.

Professional Development

  • Both site coordinators and program staff agreed on their need for professional development.

  • Similar opportunities for professional development were offered to the site coordinators and staff members (at an average about 3.5 times a year), but site coordinators participated slightly more often than staff members (about 2.5 times a year).

  • Staff characteristics—and as a result, professional development opportunities—varied according to program emphasis:


    • The community-oriented programs tended to draw their staff from the community and to have a more comprehensive program focus. Professional development tended to be in-house.

    • The school district-related programs tended to hire accredited teachers and to have a more academic focus. These staff members had more opportunities to share professional development opportunities provided by their schools.

    • Some of the larger scale programs funded by both private and public sources had a mixed-composition staff and more resources to conduct professional development and recruitment of content-specific specialists to serve as trainers and curriculum developers.

  • Professional development content varied according to the needs of specific populations and programs (e.g., training in serving youth with ADHD, behavioral problems, and language barriers; gang prevention; and using assessment data to improve academic programming and youth outcomes).

These findings support emerging knowledge about the importance of relationships among site coordinators, program staff, and youth, and demonstrate that staff in effective programs are competent leaders skilled in retaining their staff and in selecting appropriate professional development opportunities.

¹ The Partnership is comprised of the Southwest Educational Laboratory (SEDL); the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST); Mid-Continent Resources for Education and Learning (McREL); the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (NWREL); the WGBH Educational Foundation; SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro; and the Institute for Responsive Education (IRE).
² The full study report will be available in June 2007, with periodic reports to be released as early as spring 2006.

Denise Huang
Project Director and Senior Research Associate
UCLA Center for the Study of Evaluation
300 Charles E. Young Drive North
GSE&IS Bldg., 3rd Floor, Room 317
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1522
Tel: 310-206-9642

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