What are afterschool systems, and why are they so important?

by Robert Abare

Much has been written and discussed on the Afterschool Snack blog about the practices and programs that help individual afterschool programs thrive. You’ve probably read much less, however, about afterschool systems: the network of aligned programs and resources that unite across a city to build stronger, more holistic afterschool experiences for students.

The Wallace Foundation released a significant report this year on the importance of building afterschool systems in America’s cities, titled Growing Together, Learning Together. The report noted that 77 of the 275 largest U.S. cities have implemented one or more strategies to coordinate their afterschool programs. Hillary Salmons, executive director of the Providence After School Alliance in Rhode Island, lauded the benefits of a coordinated afterschool system in the report. “The biggest pay off is the consistent high quality of the experience,” she said. “You just don’t get that with a patchwork of programs.”

So, what are the key elements of an afterschool system? The Wallace report breaks it down into four components described below (descriptions are also pulled from the report).

1. Strong Leadership from Major Players

Successful afterschool systems should have the support of a city’s mayor, school district superintendent, and other leaders—and these leaders must have some form of “ownership” of the afterschool system to encourage their involvement and effort. The Wallace report also notes, however, the importance of distributing this “ownership” across all of a system’s programs, city agencies, and other invested groups to create a smooth transition process when leaders eventually step down.

2. Coordination that Fits Local Context

Afterschool systems can take a variety of shapes and sizes. To build a successful system, it’s important for communities to unite the afterschool programs and supporters that are already in place, which can be achieved by establishing a coordinating entity. For example, the Nashville After Zone Alliance (NAZA) helped unite the city's afterschool offerings through a natural partner with the Nashville Public Library, which allowed NAZA to develop new, literacy-based afterschool programing and opened opportunities to share in the library’s established funding sources.

3. Effective Use of Data

Data is critical for afterschool systems to understand their role within their communities. Collecting and properly analyzing data can allow afterschool systems to assess supply and demand, recruit and retain new students, measure performance, and advocate for more support in city government.

4. A Comprehensive Approach to Quality

Maintaining “quality” in an afterschool system may seem ambiguous, though all can agree that quality is important. The Wallace report sums up the idea nicely. “This, in essence, is what it means for a program to be high-quality: an approach, founded on best practices, that yields measurable benefits for young people.” An afterschool system can help ensure and improve its quality by setting shared standards and ensuring these standards are met.

Read the full Wallace report to see learn about the four elements of afterschool systems in rich detail, and to explore more examples of how major U.S. cities are putting these concepts into practice.

© 2013 Afterschool Alliance