Collaborating on Out-of-School time solutions: A Q&A With Afterschool Alliance.

Note: We caught up with Ursula Helminski, senior VP at Afterschool Alliance, on an innovative partnership between the New York Life Foundation and Afterschool Alliance that has helped forge new connections and insights in the Out-of-School Time space.

What is the mission of Afterschool Alliance?

The Afterschool Alliance is working to ensure that every child has access to a high-quality, affordable afterschool program.

Please tell us about the Out-of-School Time (OST) Peer Learning Group (PLG) that Afterschool Alliance created in partnership with the Foundation. What was the group's focus and what did it aim to accomplish?

Afterschool, summer, and expanded learning programs serving middle schoolers became a focus of the Foundation a few years ago, in response to a significant need for more support structures to help ensure disadvantaged youth matriculate to high school on time and well-prepared for the high school environment and classwork. The transition to high school is difficult for many, and often marks a period when students veer off course.

The Out-of-School Time Peer Learning Group was created to provide a forum for the 19 grantees in the Foundation’s portfolio to exchange ideas, connect with peers, explore the topics that are top of mind in their work, and inform the Foundation’s grantmaking strategies for preparing middle-school youth for a successful transition to ninth grade.

What challenges in the OST area did the PLG's meetings bring to light?

The PLG meetings provided a valued opportunity for grantees to take on some of the most complex challenges in their work. Three of the challenges we really dug into were strategies for engaging families, building effective relationships with school leaders, and approaches to evaluating programs, specifically how to measure social and emotional learning. Grantees shared their own approaches and learned from experts.

What kind of recommendations did the PLG ultimately make about the Foundation’s grant portfolio?

At the close of the PLG, we reflected on the portfolio and the work of its grantees, and noted a number of unique and effective approaches that are working well and should be continued: making multi-year commitments that can support programmatic and operational activities; providing opportunities for learning and exchange among grantees and the broader OST middle-school field; partnering with grantees to develop common data measures across the portfolio; providing resources needed to help grantees collect and make good use of data collected; demonstrating leadership in the development of the field of social and emotional learning; and considering ways for grantees to take advantage of the Foundation’s resources and knowledge.

The PLG offered a sustained opportunity for Foundation grantees to meet and communicate with one another. Did new learnings or collaborations between participants emerge as a result?

Together, grantees, the Foundation, and our team put a tremendous amount of time and thought into the PLG. Based on grantees’ feedback, that effort paid off. Participants overwhelmingly agreed the PLG was a good use of time, and reported that they have been able to put lessons to work in their efforts to better support middle-school youth. PLG members also created new connections with peers, with some organizing exchanges and site visits beyond the PLG. A group of executive leaders has continued to meet up and exchange emails informally.

In response to the PLG's recommendations, the Foundation has just launched its Aim High grant program in partnership with Afterschool Alliance. What's most exciting to you about this new program?

The Aim High grant program really is exciting for us, and presents an incredible opportunity for the afterschool field. Drawing from the strategies employed with the grantees in the PLG, the Foundation is providing significant funds for local programs– up to $100,000 – to support afterschool, summer or expanded learning programs, and is putting programs in the driver’s seat to state how grant funds would best be used to support youth in their transition to ninth grade. This is a strategy that is already working well at the national level, and we’re looking forward to reading applicants’ ideas.

We’re also thrilled that Aim High will help identify emerging or promising strategies for addressing the challenges identified by the PLG. The one-year grant specifically focuses on family engagement strategies. Subsequent years may focus on other challenges raised in the PLG. This will allow other grantees, and the broader OST field, to learn about strategies being employed.

This last point is very important. As part of Aim High, the Foundation has committed to share the good work of grantees via webinars and conference presentations, adding value to the broader OST field by sharing insights on how programs can better serve eighth graders facing the challenging transition to ninth grade.