Parents, youth and staff team up to improve after-school programs

When it comes to after-school program attendance, we like to say “youth vote with their feet.” Unlike school, youth usually attend after-school programs voluntarily, or their parents encourage them to go. If a program’s quality is no good, youth often walk away. Staff and volunteers are left wondering why the youth don’t return.

For many years, the Skillman Foundation has funded youth development programs in Detroit. It has also invested in improving the quality of youth development programs through capacity-building efforts like the “ACT’ing with Data” Youth Development Learning Community that is convened by the Youth Development Resource Center (YDRC).

In October 2016, the YDRC is opening up a third round of the Learning Community to youth programs throughout the city of Detroit, in addition to its Youth Development Fund grant partners. Over the course of several months, program managers lead teams in their organizations to assess and improve program quality together. They collect and look at attendance data, program quality scores and youth survey results, then make a plan to improve.

Youth, parents to weigh in at Living Arts

In last year’s Learning Community, one organization – Living Arts – took the continuous quality improvement process to the next level by asking parents and youth to join their program quality team. Led by Zack Bissell, out-of-school arts program manager, and Erika Villarreal Bunce, director of programs, Living Arts formed a team comprised of two youth, two parents, two teaching artists, and the two program managers to observe classes and give feedback.

Zack and Erika shared that using the evidence-based Youth Program Quality Assessment to make observations with their team helped them identify really specific ways that teaching artists could improve their instruction. Living Arts was already committed to being youth-driven, but doing these observations allowed them to see that instructors asking more open-ended questions would help bring out youth voice as the students learned about art or dance, rather than just following instructions. The Holistic Student Assessment survey, which measures youth’s Achieving, Connecting and Thriving skills, also helped Living Arts learn that some of their youth needed help developing more trusting relationships. As a result, staff developed a goal to include more trust-building activities in their dance and arts classes.

A parent’s perspective

LivingArts parent

Angela Galaviz

I sat down with one parent, Angela Galaviz, who joined the Living Arts program quality team. She shared with me how youth were involved in making Living Arts an even better place for kids to be after-school or in the summer.

Tell me about your experience on the Living Arts quality assessment team? Who was involved? Why did you volunteer?

I was asked by Zack, the program manager, if I’d like to participate in evaluating the program - our strengths and weaknesses - and of course, I said yes! 

There were 2 parents, 2 youth, 2 instructors and Zack and Erika. We received a training on what to look for – factual things, not opinions. 

The class I observed was an art class and I sat there and paid attention to the interaction the instructor had with the children and the children had with the instructor. What kind of atmosphere was there in the class? I also paid attention to how the instructor carried herself – was she warm, caring? I also looked at the environment in the classroom – was it safe? 

What motivated you to get involved?

More or less, I help Living Arts in any way I can. This is a wonderful organization and I think volunteering is a wonderful way of giving back for what my children have learned. 

How long has your child been involved in Living Arts?

My oldest is 14 years old and she started at Living Arts when she was 3 years old with taking classes here. Then my youngest entered as well. 

What did you see when you observed the program?

The instructor was very welcoming and greeted each child by name. Even though the students were a little late, she still welcomed them. Some instructors may have given the cold shoulder because the student was late, but she still welcomed them and I liked that. She asked a lot of open-ended questions – giving them time to think because kids need that. One pair of children were looking up pictures of Ford Field on iPads to learn about the different ways the structure was made. And I liked that they used recyclable materials – open-ended materials – which helps them learn how to use other items to create art. 

One thing another parent saw was how well the instructor helped a child. There was a younger child in a dance class and the instructor took time to show the child how to do the step so that way the child wouldn’t get discouraged. Another strength was the bonding of the girls in the class.  

What feedback did you, as a parent, and the youth give to the Living Arts staff about the program’s quality?

One thing that we did observe, we wished the art class had more time. I think they have an hour and a half, so it’s hard to plan, do and clean up. So more time. Also, more space to put their work so it doesn’t get touched or moved. It was good to observe to see what the strengths and weaknesses were so they can improve over time. 

Why is it important for youth programs to continually try to improve their quality?

Because you want to keep the families coming. And also, there has to be programs for the youth to do after-school because nowadays they are just home on internet and TV, and unfortunately, kids these days don’t know how to have conversations with people, so it’s good to bring them together with other peers their age and contribute ideas in an art or dance class, because these are life skills people need to succeed. You need to be open to other people’s ideas and to socialize. 

Did the staff give you and the youth any feedback on what improvements they were going to make?

They talked about possibilities that could be done for more space for the art work and more time. Different ways that could help the situation. 

What advice would you give to other youth programs that want to involve parents and youth in improving their programs?

They involved parents but also some of the teenagers and that was a good thing. We came together as a group to talk about what we saw – what was good, what needs improvement, what we can do to make everything better. That was a good way for the youth to know their opinion counts, and also, it’s good to get together and give your opinion and observe what you see, because that’s what happens when you’re employed. People evaluate you. So you get to see what’s good, what’s bad, and what needs improvement. 

Listening makes a difference

Zack and Erika shared that they’ve noticed now there are a lot more conversations between teaching artists, administrators and youth, who offer their opinions and suggestions for improvement. Zack noted, “It’s empowered them to add their voice.” They have also noticed a growth in program enrollment, which has allowed Living Arts to expand the variety of classes offered. 

And that’s what it’s all about – expanding opportunities for more youth to engage in positive learning activities that help them achieve their goals, connect with others, and thrive in life.

Are you ready to kick-up your youth program’s quality and impact?

Applications are being accepted through September 30 for the “ACT’ing with Data” Youth Development Learning Community. Contact Sara Plachta Elliott, YDRC Director, at sara@detroitydrc.org for the application.

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