Organizational Quality Sets the Stage for Program Quality

Youth development professionals aim to create exceptional program experiences for young people, to enrich their lives and improve youth outcomes.  Programs have rightly focused on improving program quality—what happens during program time when staff and young people interact.  Yet, program quality cannot exist in a vacuum and must be fueled and sustained by the behind-the-scenes structural and managerial practices and policies of organizational quality. Without that, efforts to improve program quality may be frustrating or lose steam as staffing and circumstances change. Across the country, thousands of out-of-school time programs use the Program Quality Assessment (PQA) and a continuous quality improvement process to enhance program quality but may find themselves with less support and direction for creating those necessary practices and structures at the organizational level. This is where the Organizational Quality Assessment (OQA) comes in.

The Forum for Youth Investment has long maintained that what happens at the policy and organizational level ultimately affects what happens when staff and young people interact at the program level. In 2012, we developed a companion assessment to the PQA called Form B, which was intended to measure organizational practices that set the stage for program quality. This tool was much less widely used than the PQA. A decade later we revisited Form B, and after a revision process, we are launching the new Organizational Quality Assessment (OQA).

Developing the OQA

In creating the OQA, we were guided and informed by several sources of information and feedback.  We looked at the original Form B and the adaptations and modifications requested by clients over the years.  We reviewed state-issued quality standards for Out-of-School Time (OST) programs and noted where there was considerable consensus around how standards of quality were conceptualized and organized.   We incorporated additional organizational quality items addressing the engagement of families, schools, and communities in the OST program.  We included a sharper focus on ensuring that all young people have equitable access to programs and that staff and programs are responsive to the cultures and communities of the young people served, helping all young people feel like they belong.

Staff practice and organizational practice are intertwined and reflect a parallel process. The OQA highlights how creating a positive and supportive culture at the organizational level, using practices that parallel those advocated for working with young people, supports, complements, and sustains creating a positive environment for young people.  Staff that are fully engaged, feel like they belong, are supported, challenged, and given feedback to support growth can best provide those things for young people. Practices that promote positive youth development, like opportunities for belonging and leadership and planning and reflection, also promote a high-quality working environment and motivated staff.

Using the OQA

Structured similarly to a PQA, the OQA is comprised of four domains, eleven scales, and 48 items. It is designed to facilitate and guide discussions on improving organizational quality and deciding priorities at the organizational level.  It provides a shared language for practice and decision-making for organizational leaders, managers, and staff at the site level, and shared language and standards for others supporting, promoting, or responsible for site-level organizational quality. While some policies and organizational decisions may be determined higher-up within the agency, the OQA is designed to assess policies, structures, and practices governing site-level implementation decisions.  These are policies, structures, practices, and norms that affect what happens in the supervisor-to-staff, staff-to-staff, and external stakeholders-to-program contexts.  The OQA also articulates the behind-the-scenes efforts and norms that directly set up what happens in the program context where young people and staff interact.

The OQA is primarily a self-assessment tool to support program improvement as part of a continuous quality improvement process.  Site managers and site staff (and ideally, young people, family members, and other stakeholders) collect relevant data sources such as survey results, employee handbooks, calendars, program schedules, and so on, then discuss the data and score the tool collectively. If documentation or data is not available, that itself is useful information for improvement planning purposes. OQA scores are used to highlight areas needing improvement and to inform improvement plans. The OQA can be used in conjunction with other tools such as the PQA, surveys of staff, youth, and families, or other data sources.

The OQA Pilot

The OQA is being piloted during the 2022-2023 program year, which means it is being used in the field for the first time this year. In spring of this year, we will be conducting a survey to gather feedback from those who have used and/or reviewed the tool. The feedback will be used to inform revisions to the tool and to support scoring guidance and training resources. We intend to launch a revised tool in the fall of 2023. The OQA can be downloaded for free, along with other program quality assessments.

When funders, OST networks, and other entities in the OST field understand how organizational quality sets the stage for program quality, their efforts to improve experiences and outcomes for young people will be more effective.  When program managers and leaders at the site level understand the interconnection between organizational quality and program quality, they can better address the needs of both the staff and the young people in their programs.  These are intertwined: motivated, trained, and highly qualified staff will create positive experiences for young people. Involving and engaging families and communities and linking with schools helps organizations utilize family and community strengths and resources and meet the needs of young people and communities. We are pleased to introduce the OQA as a resource to facilitate and focus efforts to create the organizational quality that fuels and sustains program quality improvement that helps young people thrive.