Today marks the 51st anniversary of the first episode of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood being filmed.  Multiple generations of latchkey kids will recall the uniquely comforting and stabilizing effect educational programs such as Mister Roger’s had on those struggling with less-than-ideal home environments.  Children and adolescents of course, regardless of background, need more than the phosphorescent glow of a television nanny.  Here in Western New York, local organizations are working to find effective, well-rounded ways of boosting youth enrichment and growth, even when they’re not in class.  With school officially in session, we tackle the subject of evaluating after-school program quality through the lens of our work with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Buffalo (BGCB).  Thanks to a grant from 21st Century Community Learning Center (CCLC), they were able to provide after-school programming at one Buffalo Public School (BPS) location during the 2017-2018 school year: School #43 (Lovejoy Discovery).

Youth participation in these programs varied between 30 and 90 hours during the course of the academic year.  Overall, 174 students were enrolled in after-school programming at School #43 and all attendance goals were achieved.  During the first year of the 21st CCLC grant, BGCB has also made progress in staff training and quality improvement.  The site director at School #43 hired new staff for the current academic year and provided trainings to help with youth engagement and behavioral management strategies.  Surveys for members and parents were administered during Fall 2017 and Spring 2018 whereas teacher surveys were completed in June 2018.  The student and parent responses illustrate positive experiences at each BGCB charter school site.  BGCB seeks to build upon these experiences by maintaining the programs and relationships staff have built with the youth and parents.

We spoke to Lorrie Ann Knight, Chief Operating Officer for BGCB who oversees 21st CCLC grants at the club level, to gain more insight into the project and its goals.

CCNY: What are your thoughts on the current state of American education and youth engagement/ well-being?

BGCB: If we base our thoughts on current graduation rates, we have done little to improve our system.  The achievement gaps continue to represent the racial disparities in our country.  We do however see more youth engaging in activities with others that are outside of their race/ ethnic origin.  We continue to struggle with parent involvement.

CCNY: What were after-school programs/ classroom culture/ teacher-student interactions like when you were growing up?

BGCB: During my high school years, my parents expected their children to participate in after-school programs.  However, their main focus was on our academic performance.  We were not allowed to participate in sports if we were not performing at our best in the classroom.

The classroom culture was that of respect for teachers.  Parent engagement was high.  Historically, we have observed more parents involved in their child’s academic careers at the elementary level.  My parents expected us to do our best in everything we chose to be a part of.  They also understood that without a quality education, we would face additional obstacles.

There are certainly similarities to how things are perceived today.  Social media has been a game changer.  It has allowed quicker and greater access to the world.  There are certainly more diverse after-school clubs that try and meet the needs of all kids.  A variety of learning environments have also been on the rise.

CCNY: What were your goals going into this project?

BGCB: Our goal was to have a partnership with a highly-respected organization that understands youth development.  They would not only support our mission, but assist us in mastering all levels of after-school programming.

CCNY: How did you come to work with CCNY?

BGCB: After our organization was awarded a 21st CCLC grant, we interviewed other evaluators and decided that CCNY was the best fit.

CCNY: How did you outline and define measures for success?

BGCB: With any partnership, it is imperative that there is a mutual respect and understanding of the roles.  Being transparent decreases misunderstanding and gives rise to having the ability to move forward even when that progress is slow and steady.  Both parties, when we became stuck, were open to come together to iron out any differences.

CCNY: What was the rationale behind partnering with charter schools?  Are there future plans to collaborate with traditional public schools?

BGCB: We have had a long successful relationship with two charter schools.  When they were applying for their charter, they approached us in being their after-school provider. Over the years, our relationship strengthened and it was due to their confidence in our organization that allowed for other charter schools to reach out to us.  We have also enjoyed a long-term partnership with a traditional public school.

The key to our success continues to be our commitment to youth and families throughout Western New York.  Our longevity with both charter and traditional public schools is a result of our organizations willingness to think outside the box, be transparent, and continue to invest in the training of our staff.

CCNY: What lessons have you learned in this first year of the grant cycle?  What do you hope to accomplish by next year?  In ten years?

BGCB: We have learned the importance of investing in staff training, being transparent, and holding each other accountable to the mission.  Meeting the needs of the children and families that need us the most is our top priority.  Our goal for the next year to ten years is to continue to provide the type of programs our children and their families need to be successful.  We want to continue to tell our story through measurable outcomes.

CCNY: For educational/ after-school organizations looking to improve, what advice do you have, whether it be in terms of data collection, evaluation, selecting community partners, engaging with parents/ board members, etc.?

BGCB: Our biggest advice is to allow integrity to be the common denominator in your program.  Don’t be afraid to reach out when struggles come, and they certainly will come.  Know that data collection should be the norm.  Build relationships with other partners whose focus is aligned with yours.  Allow parents to be a part of the decision making, support them.  Allow their voice as well as their children to be heard.