Features

Barriers to Afterschool Programs

It’s more than funding that stands in the way, an AASA study finds by Anne Turnbaugh Lockwood
Tom Andres, superintendent of the Sauk Prairie Public Schools in Sauk City, Wis., has removed almost every bureaucratic obstacle that had stood in the way of his school district running an effective afterschool program—and he has made it look easy.

Andres’s strategies are deceptively simple. First, he hired staff much more highly paid and qualified than those typically employed by afterschool programs—thus preventing the high turnover, low morale and the “second-class citizen” phenomenon often experienced by afterschool program personnel.

Second, he ensured these staff—a former principal of an alternative high school and a social worker with a master’s degree—already were employed half-time in regular positions in the district. This meant they not only were comfortable with the district’s culture, but they also knew how to negotiate it. The other half of their work was supported by 21st Century Community Learning Center funds used to start the program in fall 2001. CCLC funds used to be administered through the federal government but now have devolved to the state level for distribution.

Third, Andres is planning the third year of the grant in a time of severe fiscal cuts, so the other 50 percent of his staff’s positions will be covered once the grant ends. This ensures longevity for the afterschool program because Andres believes the program is tightly tied to the district’s overall mission of academic achievement and youth development.

Fourth, the two afterschool program staff maintains solid relationships with other school staff. They are seen as central to the district’s mission, not as castoffs dealing with “those problem kids” who create afterschool disciplinary problems and chaos in classrooms.

Clever Approaches
What Andres accomplished sounds simple and uncomplicated. It would be, if it were not for the fact that the typical school district is a bureaucracy embedded with all kinds of barriers that impede even the simplest changes in culture, behavior or expectations. The research literature on school change or educational reform is chock-full of examples of failed adoptions or implementations. It seems the bureaucracy triumphs over improvement time and time again.

But must the will of the bureaucracy always prevail? Are there not strategies to overcome bureaucratic barriers? A recent Mott Foundation-funded study conducted by AASA sought successful strategies used by school leaders to overcome bureaucratic barriers. Specifically, AASA looked at ways school system leaders overcame hurdles to adopt effective afterschool programs. AASA identified ways in which administrators and other central-office staff cleverly overcame the usual blockages that stymie progress.

In Beaverton, Ore., it would be easy for the central office to look at all the obstacles standing between them and effective afterschool programs and just give up. But they don’t.

Oregon has become notorious in recent months due to its critical fiscal situation and draconian cuts into school budgets. As a result, morale has plummeted, teachers are out of work, and the school year was shortened.

As one superintendent said, “What do we do when we cut to the bone—and we still have to cut more? How can we provide a quality education for all of our students—not just the ones we know will receive supplementary help at home from their parents?”

Yvonne Katz, superintendent in Beaverton at the time of the Mott study (she is now superintendent in Spring Branch, Texas), worked with huge fiscal cuts yet maintained quality afterschool programming. She did so by instilling a districtwide commitment to afterschool programming that made such programs equally important to any of the other content areas.

In Beaverton’s case, the mission was carried out through her expectations for building-level principals. These were communicated through her deputy superintendent, Betty Flad. Flad and Katz, while cobbling together funds for different afterschool programs, ensured the Beaverton district employed nothing less than an enthusiastic, bright and committed cadre of principals.

In return, these principals were not abandoned to deal with yet another fund-starved program in their buildings. They received adequate central-office support as well as monitoring to ensure they adhered to the district’s mission and did not allow themselves to be distracted by the myriad crises that afflict a principal’s day.

Isolating Incompetence
But districts more daunted by barriers in their paths continue to grapple with common bureaucratic problems. For instance, the afterschool program can become a temporary place to house a problematic staff member, someone who has been with the district in one capacity or another for years and because of tenure has been moved around continuously due to unsatisfactory performance.

As one superintendent said, “What can we do? He has been with the district so long and he is an administrator. We try to put him where he does the least harm.”

Another superintendent who clearly was devoted to his school district demonstrated the negative aspect of a grant award. New grant-funded programs can raise parental expectations, she said, but ultimately disappoint in terms of what they deliver and fail to be sustainable. In the end, a program started by a short-term grant often leads parents to lobby vociferously at school board meetings for the program’s continuation—with no visible means of support at the grant’s expiration.

This superintendent added drily, “My attitude is: Enjoy the three years.”

Unfortunately that attitude was felt throughout the school district, by instructional staff not involved with the afterschool program and by staff directly involved. As they expressed it, with some unease, it was just a feeling. The feeling was that the superintendent did not support them, that the school board knew little of their existence and that they felt powerless to sustain themselves after the grant ran out. They seemed to believe they existed in a type of bubble that insulated them, sadly enough, from the district’s mission and community.

They also believed, with legitimacy, that instructional staff never bothered to get to know them, to include them in the instructional mission or to share turf and territory because the central office had made it plain that this was a temporary endeavor only sustainable through grant money. The afterschool staff felt trivialized in the process.

In exemplary districts, leaders who successfully overcame bureaucratic barriers were those who counseled problematic individuals out of district positions where they would have a pernicious impact on programs.

In one district, a problematic staff member was a grants coordinator. In desperation, the superintendent assigned him to supervise the afterschool program, again assuming that in such a position he would do little harm. Instead, the afterschool staff felt this individual had little knowledge of afterschool programming, exerted an iron grip over their efforts, stifled new initiatives and blurred their other reporting lines.

Yet another district in the Pacific Northwest, hard-pressed by fiscal barriers, hired a community activist with little school experience—except in an adversarial role—as the afterschool director. Probably the most egregious example of a bureaucratic barrier, this individual disliked the school district and approached it as a parent advocate, making appointments with the superintendent on a few occasions to lecture her about the afterschool program. She alienated one principal at the four schools where the afterschool program was housed (to the point where communication had completely disintegrated at the time of the Mott study’s site visit), and she refused to help the site coordinators with their activities, leaving the poorly trained and compensated coordinators desperate for help.

She defended herself by saying she knew little about education and she did not see that as her job. Oversight from the central office consisted of an admission that a problem existed, but administrators basically had written off the program long before the end of its grant because the early problems were too numerous.

As one principal said in a one-on-one interview, “This program is more trouble than it’s worth. I work in a very high-needs school because I want to, but the afterschool program housed in my school easily takes 90 percent of my time and energy.”

A Basic Beginning
In Vancouver, Wash., former superintendent James Parsley spearheaded an impressive constellation of donated funds that resulted in state-of-the-art learning facilities for students, including afterschool time. Hewlett-Packard contributions made the Vancouver district a pilot site for some initiatives involving personal computers.

To Parsley, it was critical to ensure that a big slice of the district’s and community’s impressive resources were committed to out-of-school learning time that was clearly benchmarked. He told the story of the two brothers who took turns attending school until curious staff decided to find out why their attendance was steady, but alternate. The brothers, the afterschool staff discovered, shared a single pair of shoes.

Parsley pointed out that barrier as the easiest and most basic place to start when a school leader decides to put the educational mission first and squabbling over turf and territory last.

Anne Turnbaugh Lockwood, a former issues analysis director at AASA, is an educational policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. E-mail: atlockwood@cox.net