Creating quality in afterschool programming is everyone's desire and everyone's responsibility. But how does it really come about? Is quality the result of a curriculum, a healthy budget, type of program offerings, education level of the frontline staff, number of program partners, amount of resources, or something else?
I suggest that quality is most directly correlated to the leadership capacity of the program director. That individual must possess the capacity to lead people with skill sets that are far and above those needed for teaching or working in other support positions. The program director sets the tone, establishes expectations, and assures the standards of performance that result in quality.
We must make it our professional duty and practice to invest in leadership excellence. Leadership responsibility and authority can and must be distributed among our entire afterschool program staffs, but foremost, program leaders need extensive training in the nuts and bolts of administering a program along with knowledge and skills that inspire, motivate, and teach others to create magical moments in afterschool. Leaders must learn both the hard and soft leadership skill sets, and the softer skills are those that are more difficult to learn, implement, and master – and less likely taught. Being an afterschool program leader is more than a role; it's a responsibility. Effective afterschool program leaders do everything that has to be done, whenever and wherever it has to be done, and always in the best way that things should be done - whether they like it or not. They make the right things happen. They bring out the right qualities in the right people. Where that happens, without any doubt, quality will exist.
Investment in afterschool leadership must become a priority. Too often, licensure requirements specify credentials for frontline staff but do not adequately address the essential leadership skills needed by the program director. Grants are often written without consideration for the skills required or the time needed to effectively lead. Every afterschool site needs a dedicated, full-time leader. That individual must be engaged in professional learning about leadership, student management, organizational psychology, non-profit or for-profit management, standards attainment, and visioning. They must also learn how to care, inspire, and work with adults. Real learning occurs in the trenches, listening, observing good and bad leaders, evaluating the effects and results, sharing experiences, and planning with expert practitioners.
Regardless of the organizational structure, all afterschool programs must meet the most basic business goal - make a profit. Non-profits are only as good as their next buck. We all face stiff competition for funding. How successfully we generate revenue determines our reputation and future and reflects our leadership abilities. The capacity for visioning is essential for afterschool program leaders. That skill can and must be taught.
When you do something really well, word gets around. The National AfterSchool Association (NAA) has developed a series of leadership lessons tailored directly for those who work at the program site level, particularly focused on the soft skill sets. Those lessons (NAA members can find many of them in the Members Only section of the website), are simple, practical, and specific to how professionals should be treated in the afterschool setting. They are intended to help afterschool program leaders lead their staffs toward excellence and create quality learning environments that result in satisfaction and earn top rankings from those that matter most – children, youth, and their families.
Excellence in afterschool leadership must come first. When it does, quality will not be far behind.
Paul G. Young, Ph.D.
President & CEO
National AfterSchool Association