A Trip to Providence: Learning from the AfterZone

What is music?

Depends on who you ask, but one group of Providence middle-school youth recently offered me this definition: “Music is the organization of sound and silence.”

Pretty existential stuff, right? That’s the level of learning that takes place in high-quality after-school programs like the Music Club I visited at Roger Williams Middle School. But to build those high-quality programs and make sure they serve as many youth as possible, you need a system in place.

PASA Director of Expanded Learning Patrick Duhon talks with teams from Jacksonville, FL and Flint, MI about building expanded learning systems. (Photo courtesy of PASA.)

Patrick Duhon of PASA talks with teams from Jacksonville, FL and Flint, MI about building expanded learning systems.

It was for that reason that teams from seven cities were visiting Providence last week. On May 7 and 8, the Providence After School Alliance (PASA) held its annual City Symposium, an opportunity for cities to learn about the expanded learning system PASA has built over the past decade.

PASA, a CBASS partner, developed with city partners a proven model called the AfterZone, a coordinated citywide system of after-school, in-school, and summer activities for middle school youth in schools and community locations throughout Providence. Students are recruited from Providence Public School District middle schools and enrolled in programs of their choosing for 10-week sessions during the school year. The organization was launched as a public-private venture by former mayor and now Congressman David Cicilline in 2004, and has since expanded to include a four-week summer program and a similar high school network called the Hub.

Though PASA is now a smooth operating machine, it wasn’t always that way. PASA had to build from the ground up, working with community members to create a shared vision, build partnerships in diverse sectors, join forces with the public school district and teachers, and develop evaluation and quality improvement systems.

It was precisely these details for which the visiting city representatives seemed hungriest. Though they hailed from places as far-ranging as Jacksonville, FL, and Worcester, MA, and had unique local priorities and varying budgets, cities across the board expressed a strong desire to know more about the beginning steps of building city-wide systems.

One topic that was discussed at length was partnerships. PASA repeatedly emphasized the value of partnerships—with the school district, with the mayor, with businesses—but many were unsure how to make the case to potential partners and enlist their support for the long run. Providence Public Schools Superintendent Susan Lusi said one compelling message for school partners is that “our kids don’t just have an achievement gap; they have an opportunity gap” as well, which high-quality after-school programs help fill. When asked how to sustain school-community partnerships, Superintendent Lusi emphasized the importance of a strong school liaison, such as a site coordinator, as well as a school-based staff member, like an assistant principal or teacher, who can build and preserve the relationship with that coordinator. And, added one assistant principal, having a tenacious leader like PASA’s Hillary Salmons doesn’t hurt.

Participants also had questions about evaluating youth and program outcomes. Many wanted to know what tools for collecting and tracking data were best, while others wondered which outcomes to measure, and how. PASA’s quality director, Jessie Kerr-Vanderslice, walked city teams through six steps to build a quality improvement system, from setting standards and agreeing on measurement tools to monitoring and improving program quality. Cities were introduced to PASA’s data tracking tool, YouthServices.net, and the customized daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly reports that it generates to guide immediate and long-term program decisions.

A number of other topics were discussed over the two days, from branding and marketing to budgeting, hiring, and conducting professional development. It was a crash course on system building, but luckily, the learning is just beginning: every team took home a binder thick with information about the AfterZone, document templates, and other resources, and PASA and CBASS will continue to support them.

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