This Afterschool Professionals Appreciation Week, we’re celebrating you: the educators who dedicate your careers to teaching and supporting youth during the out-of-school hours. To highlight the expertise of a few leading professionals in our field, and foster widespread sharing of best practices, we asked four afterschool leaders from across the country to share their keys to success and sustainability.
Have your own pro-tip to share? We want to hear it!
Find ways to serve many needs at once.
“I teach sophisticated language, because it’s a key part of the success we’re having and a reason the engagement we have is so broad-based: people want to be empowered by words. You have to pull kids up—our program is based on research that low-income children have a 30-million-word deficit in oral communication by the time they’re four years old. And when we combine that with gardening, we’re connecting to so many family histories and cultural heritages, and at the same time we’re teaching biology, botany, chemistry, vocabulary, and community service.
“By connecting our work that way, by empowering kids with this rich oral vocabulary, we’re increasing literacy significantly. For a school like mine, which is underachieving, that gets you some buy-in!
“Parents say ‘Oh, wow! They’re doing better in reading and math! I’m going to encourage my kids to go to your summer program and afterschool program.’ But if we were to distance ourselves completely from the academics, they would say, ‘We need you to help meet the school needs, not just babysit the kids after school!’ So we need to give them the academic boost they need.
“Be independent of the curriculum, but honor the need for the literacy and math, and tie it into what the kids love. Give kids choice about how they use their time, in physical activity or gardening or service as teachers to younger kids.”
– MaryAnn Bash, director of Each One Teach One: No More Gap in Colorado
Relationships—internal and external—build your community.
“When I first started my career in afterschool, I was the youth director at a community center that served new American families. The community center really had nothing—lots of families were moving into the community and had no connections. There was a lot of gang activity and drug-dealing, even in North Dakota! Kids were running around with no place to go, since the parents were working, and many times the only time they’d get a meal or a snack is when they came to the program.
“I learned from that experience how important it is to make connections. At first there was no trust. The parents couldn’t trust anyone because of the things that were going on in the neighborhood. It took a lot of relationship-building with those parents, with people in the community, to begin to build that trust—just to get kids to be able to come to the program and love the program! But before long, the parents were coming to the program and volunteering for the program.
“I’m a pretty outgoing person, to start! But I worked very closely with a colleague to grow my relationships in the community. The family coordinator was in charge of coordinating family events, so I was involved in her parent and adult activities and she was involved in the youth activities. We intermixed a lot, so whenever she met somebody new, I was introduced to that person, and vice versa. We did a lot of activities together and expanding our networks with each other’s help. We had so much success because we worked so well together as a team.”
– Becky Mueller, afterschool network coordinator for South East Education Cooperative in North Dakota
Parents are your partners.
“We have a family night and we provide food through in-kind money that we have from the district. At every family night, whole families come and we have food and some kind of activity, like STEM night, literacy night, or a performance night if the students have been doing a workshop. And then we wrap up the night with a raffle with things that we get donated. We try to remove any barriers to them coming; they can bring their young children, we have the food, we try to have activities that the whole family can do. That has been successful for us—there are 75 students in the program and we usually have between 70 and 100 people.
“Communication is very important. Promoting events as early and for as long as possible is the best way to make sure people know about what you’re doing. And it really helps when students are involved in planning the activity. Every fall we have a carnival, but the kids actually make the little activities. It’s got a loose STEM theme, and they’re making the little games, like whack-a-mole and different types of games. The kids get really excited about it, so if the kids are excited about it, they’re more likely to talk their families into coming.
“We also survey the parents to ask them what types of things they’re interested in. I think it helps that the parents know we provide services that are different from the school’s services, so sometimes they’re more likely to come to us for help. They’re more comfortable working with us because of all the positive resources we provide. That helps us too, because if we have that relationship with the parent, if we do have a behavioral issue or something with their child, it’s a lot easier to approach the parent.”
– Joanne Flynn, director of Phillipsburg REACH in New Jersey
Engage with the field and involve your alumni.
“When I was first hired, I was encouraged by parents to go out and make this job my profession. I sent out materials and went on expeditions to see what was out there.”
Over time, active engagement in afterschool as a profession meant that Denise Sellers joined more professional groups on her own and found ways to participate in her community in many different capacities.
“Our responsibility to our kids doesn’t—and shouldn’t—end when they age out of the program.”
Having older kids participate in other ways after they’ve aged out of the program contributes insights from children who have been in the program and offers a chance for younger children to develop supportive and powerful relationships with their older peers. There are also opportunities for college- and post-college-age alumni to join the program as staff, trustees, and parents of their own enrolled kids, contributing that valuable perspective from all angles.
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