Education groups look to future of after-school, summer programs

Florida Times Union, Mon, Dec 28, 2015
By Tessa Duvall

Millions of dollars are spent every year in Jacksonville to help children after school and over the summer. But a lack of coordination makes those efforts less effective than they can be, according to people who are setting out to change that.

The Jacksonville Children’s Commission has convened an Out of School Time Design Team, which in addition to the commission, includes the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, Duval County Public Schools, the Community Foundation and the United Way.

The team’s goal is to better coordinate and improve after-school and summer learning time. Its work begins with collection of data that isn’t currently available. For example, there is no countywide system for tracking waiting lists for after-school programs.

Pam Paul, executive vice president of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, said the organization is conducting research on the current systems of out-of-school time programming, including locations, the children served and the outcomes. After conducting focus groups and interviews, she said, the fund will compile its findings in a report to be released in May.

Paul said while after-school services have always been done correctly, they haven’t always been state of the art. She’s hoping to see innovation and continuous improvement.

“Now is the opportunity to expand to this bigger world,” Paul said. “What are the ways that after-school program providers can really engage with kids that are really going to develop their leadership capabilities and other competencies?”

Trey Csar, president of the education fund, noted that more of a child’s life is spent out of school than in. He added that poorer children are hurt more when after-school activities aren’t helpful to them.

“Higher-income kids, they travel all summer, they go to sleep-away camp, they do a lot of things that expand their learning,” Csar said. “And lower-income kids oftentimes don’t, and it’s not just about summer learning loss, but disproportionate summer outcomes.”

Duval Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the design team has the opportunity to streamline and be more strategic about how the agencies use after-school programming, and go beyond making sure students are safe.

“There’s an opportunity to go even deeper for a greater return on investment, and that is ultimately the goal of this partnership and analysis,” Vitti said.

Vitti said he wants to see an improvement in quality in the providers that receive contracts and grant money. Currently, the most effective school-based programs, called Team Ups, collaborate with school principals and are mindful of the challenges many of the children have, he said.

“They’re building off what they know is working during the school day; and with that additional time, they’re just able to go deeper with more continuity to have an impact on the child; and they see the return on investment on the academic and behavioral side,” Vitti said.

After-school programs locally have grown in recent years. JCC sites in schools and community organizations have grown in the last five years from 61 locations to 70. The programs served 10,135 children in 2011-12 and are projected to serve 11,509 kids this school year, according to JCC records. More than $10.8 million will be spent on after-school this year, an amount that includes grant money and city dollars.

In the last two years, the Children’s Commission received close to $1 million more from the Florida Department of Education, said Colin Murphy, senior director of operations at JCC. The two grants will allow the commission to serve close to 500 more students at five more school sites once those last two programs launch in January.

In addition to its work with the design team, JCC is looking at ways to provide more after-school programming for high school students. Murphy said in a given year, only about 500 of the students they reach in after-school programs are high-school age.

Murphy said JCC is researching other models that work well for teens, including college- and career-oriented programs. “It would have to look a lot different from the Team Up program,” he said.

Paul said the education fund currently only has a broad vision for the future of out-of-school time. But some of the findings — such as a comprehensive after-school waiting list — could lead to hard decisions.

“We’re going to have to make some tough choices about what it really takes to improve quality and what does it take to serve more kids; and with the resources we have available right now, what can we do?” Paul said.