How can I involve families and the community? How will this benefit my program and the community as a whole?
Andi Fletcher of the California Department of Education describes what happens when an entire community is enlisted to support afterschool programs.
Why involve the larger community?
Garnering support from parents and building strong community partnerships is key to setting up a program that will be sustainable in the long run, for several reasons. First, afterschool programs exist in response to the changing needs of American families, and therefore must remain continuously in-tune with family concerns. Programs are more likely to find parents involved, as volunteers when possible, as planners, as sources of funding (for example, through their employers), when the parents know that program administrators are paying attention to their needs.
Second, the community as a whole also has a serious stake in successful afterschool programs, to reduce crime and other problems that arise when youth are unsupervised, and to help ensure that young people become responsible, contributing members of society. Business leaders will be responsive and helpful when they are made aware of the overall impact good afterschool programs can have. They can provide resources that would otherwise be too expensive, such as extra space, old or new computers, and other materials, including arts supplies or equipment for science projects.
Kathy Lewis, California's Deputy State Superintendent of Public Instruction, explains how you can garner widespread support for your afterschool program, by highlighting the benefits for the community.
In addition, business leaders may be willing to act as mentors, and some employers might offer job-shadowing programs for neighborhood youth. Law enforcement officials also know that their role in the community is multi-fold; they can act not just as enforcers but as mentors and role models. Around the country, law enforcement officials have sponsored afterschool programs, collaborating with schools and community groups to provide resources and time to help improve the lives of young people.
Finally, potential funders are aware of the importance of these partnerships. For example, the 21st Century Initiative grant applications require that bidders
1 show how they will make community partnerships a part of their program.
Reach out to everyone you can think of: museum directors, restaurant owners, town council members, everyone! To do so, offer discussion forums, conduct surveys, and be ready to present your organization as one with vision and goals for the entire community. Be prepared to hand out facts and statistics that support what you know is true: that good afterschool is good for the whole community.
Ensure that parent involvement is meaningful, from initial planning through continued leadership.
In Boston, with the support of the Mayor, a task force was formed to find ways to garner community-wide support for afterschool programs.
As you begin planning your program, communicate with parents about their needs. Conduct meetings, send out well-designed surveys, and gather as much information as possible about what parents are looking for. Share and use this information as you plan schedules, make arrangements for transportation, and devise systems for communicating with parents. Parents should be part of advisory committees and on the board of directors, if they exist. Think about the broader needs of parents, including their educational needs. The most successful afterschool programs become community learning centers, where adults can take continuing education classes, parenting classes, job training courses, or can engage in social forums.
For more information about how to involve families in meaningful ways, see the Parents United for Child Care Web site. PUCC is a member organization that empowers parents to be effective advocates for improvements in child care and family policy.
Find strategies for open communication with family and school-day teachers to ensure an effective flow of information.
A good program should feel like a part of the community open to everyone. To make sure that this is true, institute clear channels of communication. Send newsletters home on a regular basis, and schedule monthly meetings for families or family advisory groups. Be sure that parents are aware of what's going on in their child's day. A great way to do this is through special events, like writing celebrations, performances, art shows, or thematic festivals, that give kids a chance to show off what they've learned while making parents feel they are welcome. In being part of the audience, parents become a part of the learning experience.
Parents should be told how their children are doing - good news as well as concerns should communicated on a daily basis! A short conversation with each parent at pick-up time is an opportunity not to be missed, and can be supplemented with weekly written reports and regular meetings. A daily planner is a great way for the classroom teacher, afterschool staff, and parents to keep in touch with each other.
If your program is not school-based, it's especially important to find ways to communicate information with school administrators and teachers. School staff can be included in surveys so that they have input about the program itself. Information should be shared between school staff and afterschool staff. This can be accomplished through newsletters or by attending each other's meetings. Also, schools and afterschool staff should be especially attentive to children with special needs. Sharing information and developing joint goals for students is critical to helping them succeed.
Maria Iglesias, the Principal of Lee Elementary School, and Lainy Fersh, the Director of Parents United for Child Care, talk about the importance of making connections with all members of the community.
Give parents and other members of community opportunities to volunteer and lead.
Even though afterschool programs are designed to fill a gap created when parents are working, it's important to find ways to bring parents into the program, to share their knowledge and expertise, and to help them feel a part of their child's learning experience. Think flexibly about one-day opportunities for a parent to come in and work with children. Give parents plenty of notice about these opportunities so that they have a chance to rearrange schedules, when possible, to give some time after school.
Ellen Gannett stresses parent involvement.
Beyond this, you'll find that community members are often willing to volunteer their time, but you need to do the leg work to find out who's available. You might find that certain senior citizens will make excellent tutors, filling the need for one-on-one time with students. Local businesses might be willing to set up programs where employees can spend time volunteering with children. Local colleges and universities offer a pool of students looking for opportunities to volunteer their time. These young people, and all volunteers, can bring with them special expertise that might make it possible to run clubs or activities based on their unique interests. Keep in mind that some volunteers will be able to set up a regular schedule, while others will only be available for special occasions, like field trips or special parties or events. Try to accommodate if you can, so that the broader community is involved in your program. Finally, when you plan celebrations and special events, be sure to invite your volunteers and community partners!
Ellen Gannett discusses how community involvement can help build a successful program.
Make use of existing networks of youth-serving organizations.
Churches, recreation centers, local Y's or other youth-oriented organizations are key players in afterschool programs. Programs that are not school-based are often run by just these organizations, so you'll want to include them in initial discussions and planning. Further, you'll want to find out what they know about support, fundraising, and resource development in your area. They might be able to help you find facilities and resources about which you were not aware - or they may be willing to share their space with you. Especially if physical space, indoors or outdoors, is a problem for your program, tap into the network of existing programs to see how others have solved, or alleviated, the problem.
Be sure to include the children and youth themselves in planning, communication, and leadership.
Keep in mind as you build partnerships with teachers, parents, and community leaders, that children are the center of your program. They will tell you what they want and need if you listen, and should be able to offer regular feedback, through meetings or surveys, about the program. Students should feel that they are a part of the process. Give them responsibilities for the program as appropriate for their age group. Then, respect them by listening to their advice and suggestions.
Older children especially should be given opportunities to take on leadership roles within the framework of your program. There are many youth development organizations that can offer guidance in this area, including The Center for Youth Development and Policy Research, the mission of which is "to be both opportunistic and strategic on a national and local level in shifting the public debate and commitment from youth problems to youth development".