There is no question that I am a fan of out-of-school time (OST) systems — data-driven, coordinated community-level efforts to improve access to quality before and after school and summer learning experiences. Just check my track record to know I have helped incubate dozens of them across the country, both as part of The Wallace Foundation team as well as a Big Picture Approach consultant with the Forum for Youth Investment. But for all I thought I knew about OST systems, I learned another critical value-add of having one in your community — they can help with saturation. Defined as “a state when no more of something can be absorbed,” saturation in the context of OST is when all young people across a community are getting access to and participating in rich developmental OST experiences—regardless of the program “brand” they are participating in.
I knew the Forum used the term. But it was only recently that the significance of it really hit home for me when, as a member of the Forum team, I helped plan and then participated in a day-long Changing the Oddsconvening with representatives of thirteen national youth serving organizations, all of whom have an affiliate structure. Part of the day included a panel facilitated by the Forum for Youth Investment, with R. Sam Larson from Michigan State University (MSU); Candy Markman, former executive director of the Nashville After Zone Alliance (NAZA); and myself, as former Initiative Manager at the Wallace Foundation who had been responsible for helping grow nine OST systems across the country. The purpose of the panel was to engage the group in a discussion about national and local scale strategies. Since Sam and her colleagues at MSU had recently written a very compelling report about scale strategies she was invited to kick-off the conversation.
Entitled Strategies for Scaling up Social Programs: Pathways, Partnerships, and Fidelity, the report describes strategies for scaling up social programs. It defines “scaling up” as a process for significantly increasing the number of sustained implementations of a successful program, thereby serving more people with comparable benefits. Drawing on information from 45 scaled social programs, it examines three strategic decisions that are critical to scale: pathways, partnerships, and fidelity. In brief, the report concludes that:
A. Programs tend to use one or more of the following pathway approaches:
(1) branching pathways: when a lead organization increases its own capacity to offer the program at multiple sites in new locations or to new target groups.
(2) affiliate pathways: when implementing organizations in the field buy or license the rights from a lead organization to offer the social program and the infrastructure that goes with it.
(3) distribution network pathways: involves a lead organization working with a distribution organization to tap into the latter’s existing networks of implementing organizations.
B. Across all pathways, partnership mattered: scale-up involved multiple partners playing multiple roles.
C. And, finally, fidelity appears to have two distinct components: changes made by the program developers themselves, and changes made by the implementers at the community level.
After discussing national and local scale strategies the Forum facilitator posed a simple question to the group: “Think about the communities where you or your affiliates are working. How are they getting to a level of saturation – including coverage and diversity of offerings cross a community?” And on hand to help us tackle that question was Candy, who described how NAZA and other OST systems across the country work with a diverse set of programs all committed to ensuring quality OST experiences regardless of their program model. Interjecting the concept of an OST system into a discussion on scale quickly led to a discussion of saturation, which is less about how single programs scale and more about how one or more programs work collaboratively to ensure access to high quality programming, with consistently trained staff, so that all youth who need services in a place experience.
As Candy reflected on NAZA’s approach she stated: “We didn’t use the word saturate — but if you are going to touch young people wherever they are, it’s not just in programs, it’s also on the street corners where they hang out.” That’s why NAZA supported programming in apartment complexes and recreation centers — places where young people are naturally, and that have the potential to provide rich developmental experiences if they are staffed with competent and caring adults who use consistent developmental practices. All things an OST system can help support.
Sighs of relief could be heard as meeting participants felt the burden of scaling their program model to every young person in a community being lifted off their shoulders. It isn’t that they don’t believe in their models — they are all very good — but rather facing the reality that no single organization has the capacity to meet the diverse needs of the young people in any given community. And this brought us back to a key point that Sam and her colleagues made about pathways to scale: partnerships matter — a lot! And I can think of no better way to support partnerships among youth development organizations all committed to not just scale but saturation than through partnering with an OST system. So, in addition to all the other reasons an OST system is good for a community — access, transportation, improved quality, better data and data use — I will now add saturation to my list.