Resource center extends helping hand to expanded learning and summer programs

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The people who run the hundreds of youth programs across the city have their hands full, says Nancy Peter, head of the Out-of-School Time Resource Center (OSTRC) at the University of Pennsylvania.

They’ve got kids to watch over, programs to develop, and funds to raise in an era of static or dwindling resources. And the out-of-school time (OST) programs seem ever more essential as afterschool and summer programming in District schools has withered.

What many program directors lack, says Peter, is the time and energy to enhance staff skills, identify emerging trends and network with peers in the field. And that, by all accounts, is the invaluable, behind-the-scenes role that Peter and her staff play with vigor and efficiency.

“I wanted to have a center whose job it was to assist OST staff,” said Peter, who created the center a decade ago.

To that end, the OSTRC’s main focus is on professional development for the adults who operate and work in these programs. The goal is that this work will help enhance the programs’ value to young people who are often struggling academically and in other ways.

“If you’re going to have kids doing something from the time the last bell rings until 6 o’clock, you want that program to be the highest quality possible. The question is, how do you help staff get better?” said Marty Friedman, who serves on the center’s advisory board. His group, EducationWorks, runs youth programs in Philadelphia, Chester, Camden and Trenton.

“My staff are always showing up at OSTRC events. They make the time and they go. That really tells me all I need to know about how well it works,” Friedman said. Peter, he said, “saw the need for professional development for the people directly involved with the kids,” something program directors were not geared up to do.

Bringing people together

The OSTRC hosts peer-networking seminars and workshops and runs a website that gets more than 2,000 hits a month. The online document library, updated monthly, covers topics ranging from homework help to project-based learning to dropout prevention. The online calendar lists “every publicly accessible training in the area,” Peter said.

Too often, says Peter, practitioners work in isolation, unaware of networking possibilities. “People are so surprised. They say, ‘Oh my goodness, I have a peer group out there,’” Peter said.

Peter says her forté — her joy — is bringing people together.

“I say often that I made a job out of my personality. I love pulling things together. I love helping people access things,” she said. “It’s nobody’s job responsibility to amass resources and make connections. We do that for them.”

Tom Sheaffer, policy director in the city’s Office for Health & Opportunity, heaped praise on Peter’s initiative.

“She’s been a heroine of mine,” said Sheaffer, who oversees the Philadelphia OST Project. “She had this idea for a center 10, 15 years ago and she found a way to make it happen. It just keeps doing more good things.”

But because her center does not itself directly serve kids, Peter struggles for funding support. “That’s oftentimes a problem,” Sheaffer said.

The project overseen by Sheaffer aims to bolster the quality, accessibility and distribution of programs serving 40,000 children across the city. Details of the citywide project are online — on the OSTRC website, with help from Peter’s staff.

In 2009, the center launched the Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative to support youth sports groups with networking, programming and advocacy. More than two dozen organizations now participate.

An effective formula

Nancy Peter, head of the Out-of-School Time Resource Center at the University of Pennsylvania A recent seminar that drew about 40 youth sports practitioners illustrates the ebb and flow — and potential impact — of an OSTRC event. Attendees came from all parts of the city and all kinds of sports, including martial arts, ice and field hockey, basketball, jumping rope, angling and both girls and boys baseball.

The gathering had all the hallmarks of a Nancy Peter/Out-of-School Time Resource Center production:

  • Strong attendance, with about half the attendees being newcomers, a mix that over time has proven optimal (Peter has researched the issue) to energizing discussions.
  • A timely discussion, this one titled “Hot Topics in Sports.”
  • Opportunities to mingle, promote upcoming events — and still adjourn on time.

Panelist Jim Britt, chief operating officer of the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, urged listeners to develop a plan to keep children and staff safe in a crisis situation. Otherwise, he said, “the chaos is unbelievable.” A good resource, he noted, is the community outreach team or crime prevention officer in the local police district.

Speaker Kenny Holdsman, president of Legacy Youth Tennis and Education, discussed equity and access in sports programming and also mentioned the “Swiss Army knife” problem — trying to do so many things that the program loses focus.

And Peter urged attendees to find ways to gauge the impact of their programs and to become expert in measuring outcomes — the better to impress potential donors. “It’s not as impossible as you might think,” she reassured them.

A few hours later, a remarkably detailed recap of the panel discussion and the Q-and-A session that followed was delivered via email to every attendee, along with a list of everyone who had attended and their contact information.

This was not by chance: Peter has researched what she terms the “magic ingredients” to a productive session, including “panelists who are dynamic, who stay on topic, who give you tangible things to take with you, and the minutes right after, and contact information.”

Salvatore Sandone, who runs Zhang Sah Martial Arts and who, like Friedman, is on the OSTRC advisory board, said the networking events are right on point.

“She’s good at going out and getting two or three exemplars who can talk about where the rubber meets the road — how to engage hard-to-reach youth, how to develop and keep high-quality staff,” Sandone said. “Everybody has a chance to field questions. There’s a lot of rich dialogue, and you rub elbows and make those connections.”

Focusing on Philly

Peter, 57, has a background in environmental education and holds a doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania. The OSTRC is part of Penn’s School of Social Research and Policy. The center has an annual budget of about $450,000, and like her peers in many OST programs, she spends much time fund-raising. The OSTRC also does fee-based work assisting in the evaluations of OST-related professional development events around the country.

But the center’s main focus is on the Philadelphia area. For instance, the director of a startup extreme sports program introduced himself to Peter one recent morning, and she showered him with contacts. “It’s going to be a big deal for him to be embraced by this community,” she said. “And until this morning he was totally off my radar.”

“In another century, I would have been … a matchmaker. Over the last 10 years, we’ve developed a culture here. … An OST person with a need, a problem, a question — we can get back to you with more resources than you can imagine.”

Sheaffer, the city’s OST point person, lamented the center’s ongoing struggle with funding.

“Now more than ever, as schools drop back on arts, music, those in-school activities that focus on character development, after-school programs are so important,” Sheaffer said. “But a good-quality program needs staff who are knowledgeable. They love working with kids but they need to be trained — and that’s what the OSTRC’s peer-support initiatives are about.”.

This report is part of an ongoing series of stories on expanded learning time. The stories are the result of a multi-city reporting project by Catalyst Chicago and its partners: EdNews Colorado, EdSource Today, GothamSchools and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.The collaborative effort was made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation, which has made More and Better Learning Time a priority in its philanthropy.