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Q&A: Even in a Pandemic, ExpandED Pushes for Program Excellence

October 9, 2020

Jennifer Friedlin

As part of its effort to sustain and expand New York City’s afterschool system, ExpandED Schools directly provides grants to community-based organizations that run elementary and middle school programs in low-income communities around New York City. In addition, ExpandED offers coaching and training to help directors and line-staff deliver exceptional programming. In this time of great uncertainty, ExpandED is doing all it can to ensure that, whether in-person or remote, afterschool is able to continue providing creative hands-on learning opportunities that are socially- and emotionally-informed so that all participants thrive.

Natalie Colon, ExpandED’s Director of Program Excellence, recently shared her thoughts about what afterschool can achieve even in this most atypical of school years.

With the school year finally starting, what are you working on?

There are so many moving pieces. No one yet knows if, when, or how afterschool will start, which requires us to constantly think and adapt. For example, when the Department of Education changed the opening of school, we needed to adjust our timeline for starting our afterschool conversations with CBO and school teams. We have initiated communication with our sites and are now listening to their concerns as we figure out how best to support them.

We are still moving forward as best as we can. For example, we are now looking forward to our middle school literacy institute for our MS ExTRA reading program later this month. This is our first time holding it on a remote platform but I am so proud of the work ExpandED program managers are doing to make it great. Stay tuned for this event!

What are you hearing from the community-based organizations ExpandED supports?

Organizations are trying their best to navigate the uncertainty, but it’s tough. Some are facing hiring issues and some aren’t sure if they will be able to implement their programs in the schools. There are many concerns from families, schools, and communities. We are waiting to see if the Department of Youth and Community Development will allow for more flexibility in allowing afterschool to be held remotely.  Right now, we are focused on helping our partners figure it all out based on the hurdles they are facing. I am confident that a lot of our programs will be able to adapt to whatever the circumstances.

What are your goals for this year?

Our goal is the same as always: to support all of our 100+ afterschool programs as best as we can. Whether that is through quality coaching, professional development opportunities, advocacy, or resources. We want to continue to support CBOs and School leaders as they identify their goals and needs. We also want to continue to hear from our CBO directors and create avenues so they can communicate with one another. This creates a truly supportive community. With this said, we are looking forward to our first directors convening in mid-November.

What role can afterschool play during these difficult times?

Afterschool is needed now more than ever because it is a place that allows students to decompress, connect, and explore new opportunities. Of course, it’s hard to run programs right now but there is no doubt that students are hungering for the type of enrichment and relationships afterschool offers. So as much as possible, we really want to get programs up and running and we are here to support them.

What are some of the key takeaways from programs that were able to go remote in the spring?

After the shutdown, afterschool programs worked tirelessly to address the many needs of students and families in their communities. Even though people did not have enough time to adequately prepare for remote programming, many programs successfully got remote programming up and running.  Did challenges exist? Yes. Was enrollment as high as it had been? For the most part, no. However, programs did what they could to adapt their activities so that students could continue participating and staying engaged. Some programs even succeeded in getting higher participation rates by engaging parents. They understood that if parents bought into afterschool, the kids would show up online. For example, the Child Center of NY’s afterschool program at P.S. 182 provided recipes that families could make meals together and then they reached out to incorporate the parents in a virtual cooking event. This was a big success.

What do you think afterschool will look like when life returns to normal?

I think we are going to see many more afterschool programs incorporate more SEL practices, not only for their students but also for their staff.  We have been talking about social emotional learning as a stand-alone activity within afterschool when in reality it should be embedded in all aspects of programming.