In the Grand Ballet of Afterschool, Let Governance Lead

The story of how you go about creating an effective, citywide afterschool system starts with a word you might not expect: governance.

Governance as Ballet (Stick With Us)

The brilliance of citywide afterschool systems is that they draw on and coordinate all of the resources available throughout the community for the benefit of the city’s young people. When they happen well, they resemble a ballet starring city leaders, program providers, schools and colleges, families, and local businesses—all playing key roles in a single production with a compelling narrative arc. At least 77 of the 275 largest cities in the U.S. are home to afterschool systems putting on their own community-specific ballet.

So how do you get to that level of coordination? Dancing alone is one thing, putting on a whole production requires structure. In afterschool, that structure is governance. See what we did there?

Home is Where the Organizational Strategy Is

FourPoint Education Partners spent five years on the technical assistance team for The Wallace Foundation’s Afterschool System Building Initiative, which supported 14 cities to strengthen their afterschool systems. Through their Wallace Foundation research, as well as their work in other communities, they interviewed leaders from 15 cities with successful afterschool systems: Baltimore, Boston, Denver, Fort Worth, Grand Rapids, Jacksonville, Louisville, Nashville, New York, Philadelphia, Providence, Saint Paul, Oakland, Omaha, and Palm Beach County. They found that a “distinguishing feature of afterschool system governance is the organizational home.”

Where the system lives — its home — drives a number of aspects of system governance, including how it is staffed, how decisions are made and by whom, and how its work is funded over time.

Essentially, cities should think very carefully about where their afterschool system’s home is, because that home—which is also its governance structure—will be the driver for “the basic operating structures and practices that guide and support the work.”

The Goldilocks Challenge

There’s no one “right” model of governance, rather cities need to embrace a Goldilocks challenge: finding the model that’s just right for them. Through their research with the 15 cities, FourPoint found that three primary models of governance emerged for successful afterschool systems: Public Agencies, Networks, and Nonprofits.

In afterschool systems using the public agency model—like Nashville and Grand Rapids—city or school district employees mainly staff the system, with agency, district and/or city leaders stepping in to provide strategic leadership, oversight, and motivation around shared system goals.

For example, former Nashville Mayor Dean launched the Nashville After Zone Alliance (NAZA) as a strategy for increasing the high school graduation rate. Mayor Dean was a hands-on NAZA champion, staying involved in decision making, engaging key stakeholders, and keeping them focused on the work. He also engaged Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools’ superintendent as vice-chair and other leaders from municipal agencies and the business community. To buffer NAZA from any potential impacts of leadership transitions, just prior to Mayor Dean’s departure, NAZA moved to its new home — the Nashville Public Library — where the hope is it will become an ongoing part of the city infrastructure.

Afterschool networks are exactly what they sound like: a set of organizations that contribute to the leadership of system-building work. There’s no single home. Networks tend to work well with a small group of organizations (2–3) because they rely on collective decision making. The network can include all public or all private partners or a combination of both.

For example, Sprockets is a public-private partnership of three organizations (the city’s parks and recreation department, Augsburg College’s Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship, and YWCA of Saint Paul) that support a system of afterschool options in Saint Paul. The Sprockets team collaborated with providers and community partners to increase high-quality afterschool opportunities for youth, including engagement with four existing neighborhood network teams. An executive committee and leadership team with members from city agencies, the mayor’s office, the school district, community-based organizations, and others helped set Sprocket’s strategy and maintain network momentum.

Local nonprofits were another common model FourPoint found in their governance research and are the model typically found in the most mature systems as nonprofits are built to weather political transitions. Afterschool systems nonprofits came in all shapes and sizes, from multiservice organizations that ran a variety of programs to single-purpose organizations that only focused on system building.

For example, The Family League of Baltimore operates as a 501c3 and serves as a coordinating entity for state funds — helping to set funding priorities and distribute resources to programs serving Baltimore children and families. As such, its afterschool work sat within a larger portfolio of initiatives. The Family League directly funded programs through a mix of public and private sources. At the Family League, a senior director of initiatives oversaw Baltimore’s afterschool system-building work in addition to other organizational priorities. In addition to its organizational governance structure, the Family League engaged a citywide steering committee focused specifically on its community school strategy, which included afterschool, and regularly sought input from the provider community, youth, and families to inform its afterschool system-building approach.

Every Community is Unique

Each of the three models highlighted by FourPoint’s research comes with its own advantages and drawbacks—there’s no single right model, although Every Hour Counts believes in the power of the nonprofit governance structure to withstand political shifts and allow for one leading organization to serve as the voice of the system to advocate for increased resources.

It’s important for cities to sit down and think about the model that would work the best for their particular community and needs. The model should follow context. Getting back to our ballet metaphor, everyone’s roles should be clearly articulated and embraced. An afterschool system ballet can’t happen unless all of the partners and people within the performance understand who is responsible for what, be it system leadership, oversight, or day-to-day operations.

The best thing about afterschool systems is that when they happen well, they’re a supremely adaptable system. The needs of communities change, learning contexts change, developmental and education research evolves. So should your model! Of the 15 cities FourPoint reviewed, nearly half changed their organizational home at some point. Good governance will encourage and support flexibility, not hinder it.

Happy dancing!

FourPoint’s infographic can be found here, and the full research brief can be found here.