Back to top

Common Elements that Vary Across School and Community Settings

The structure and composition of community programs vary widely; therefore, putting the science into practice in community settings requires understanding and embracing the diversity of settings so that practitioners who work and volunteer in the myriad of community learning and development settings within a community— regardless of where they operate, whom they serve, and what they do—“see themselves in the science.”

The differences between the formal structures of school and the flexible and free choice nature of community- based learning and development settings have implications for how practitioners are able to implement science-informed strategies that support equitable learning conditions.

Below are some key differences in settings.

As described above, community-based learning and development settings have varying goals depending on the content and purpose of their programs. Unlike formal K-12 settings, which share a goal of academic growth as well as fostering critical mindsets and habits that contribute to academic success, informal community learning and development settings share the broad goal of supporting learning and development, but specific goals depend on the content being offered. Goals for community-based learning and development settings often lead with positive youth development but then include everything from cultivating STEM skills to learning a new physical skill such as climbing or soccer to helping youth become community advocates.

Community-based programs range from one-on-one mentoring programs to large youth serving organizations with capacity to serve hundreds of young people. There are no “average class size” guidelines for community- based settings. Rather, size is driven by both the goals of the program as well as the resource capacity to offer programming.

In community-based settings attendance expectations vary programmatically by goals and developmentally by age. School age childcare programs tend to have an expectation of consistent five day per week attendance to support working families. Programs for middle school youth tend to have less frequent participation because at that stage of development, youth want to explore many options and may participate in two or three different learning and development settings over the course of a week. High school youth may participate in a traditional community program only once a week, and do so based on interests or desire to learn a specific skill. Regardless of what is being offered, the voluntary nature of participation in community-based settings makes it essential that programming is relevant and engaging to youth in order to bolster participation. This is in contrast to K-12 education that sets specific guidelines for expected school day attendance.

In addition to classroom teachers, a school setting includes other professionals—counselors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, librarians, family and community outreach specialists. It also includes paraprofessionals and support staff—teacher aides, bus drivers, extended day staff, and others. Practitioners who work in community-based programs run the gamut from professionally certified youth workers, to paraprofessionals, to volunteers in the community. In many large youth serving organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs of America many of the staff are, themselves, older youth. School-based afterschool programs often hire school day personnel to provide academic support while also engaging community members and college students to provide enrichment. Staff who run community programs in libraries and museums may have no training in youth development, but have deep content knowledge of a topic or issue. Community-based programs range from one-on-one mentoring programs to large youth serving organizations with capacity to serve hundreds of young people. There are no “average class size” guidelines for community- based settings. Rather, size is driven by both the goals of the program as well as the resource capacity to offer programming.

Community-based program practitioners have no common, coordinated pre-service or in-service training and professional development system at the national or state level. While there are efforts to have a national youth workforce credential, participation in training and professional development is voluntary and not at scale.

However, locally, many youth development practitioners are trained in learning approaches that more naturally lend themselves to engaging the whole child, especially focused on positive developmental relationships and environments filled with safety and belonging. This is done through implementation of a program quality improvement system that has standards of practice, performance feedback, supports for continuous quality improvement, and guidelines and incentives for participation.1

Although gross inequities exist within the K-12 public education system—and this has been a primary driver of the design principles work—there is universal recognition that all children and youth are supposed to have access to public education. The same is not true for community- based learning and development settings. Too often there is a pattern of winners and losers in terms of which youth get access to what kinds of opportunities, with youth from middle and upper-income families getting more and varied access to community learning and development opportunities than their disadvantaged peers.2 Focusing on just one type of community-based learning and development setting, afterschool programming, research from the Afterschool Alliance indicates that in 2020 approximately 25 million youth (50 percent of our nation’s total) not currently in an afterschool program would be enrolled in a program if one were available to them, according to their parents. Further, unmet demand for afterschool programs is higher among African-American and Hispanic children (58 percent and 55 percent, respectively) compared to Caucasian children (46 percent), according to their parents.3

While the funding of public education in the U.S. is complex, most of the resources are public and the mixture of Federal, state, and local funding is clear and well- documented. The same is not true for community-based programs, which rely on both public and private sector funding, often showing idiosyncratic and unique patterns. A 1992 study described financial support for community youth programs as “grossly inadequate.”4 This situation has not changed dramatically since then. Until the 1990s, funding for afterschool programming was provided largely by community-based organizations, such as the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, rather than by the federal government. In the mid-1990’s however, with new research on the benefits of afterschool participation combined with more family members working outside the home, the issue of afterschool gained policymakers’ attention, and in 1994 legislation for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative was passed. While 21st Century Community Learning Center grants are still the only federal funding source dedicated exclusively to providing afterschool and summer learning programs for children and youth, more than 26 million youth are eligible to attend Community Learning Centers. But funding allows only 1.7 million to participate.5 Private philanthropy supports many community-based learning and development settings but even so, they remain on fragile footing.

K-12 public schools have, for the most part, an institutional home called “the district” that dictates policies and procedures that create both enabling conditions and barriers to implementing the guiding principles (see the K-12 Playbook for information on these enabling conditions and potential barriers).

Community-based learning and development settings vary widely in their organizational affiliation. Sometimes they are part of larger institutional structure with its own set of guidelines that influence all of the differences described above. A local Boys and Girls Club, for example, has a national office that supports content development, adult capacity building and continuous quality improvement efforts. As such, it also creates enabling conditions and potential constraints for being able to implement science-informed strategies. In contrast, a youth practitioner in a locally developed organization may only have access to these kinds of supports if they are active in a local provider network. The ability of practitioners to implement science- informed strategies then, is very much affected by the institution and structure in which they are working.

Despite the diversity of community programs, their common denominator is the commitment to create supportive learning settings that nurture young people’s strengths and interests and enable them to thrive.

Relationship building is at the heart of what these organizations do. While an organization may be known by its activities or content—an arts program, a sports league, an environmental camp—young people consistently voice a common refrain: they may initially be “hooked” by the activity, but they stay because of the bonds they form with peers and adults.

1David P. Weikart Center for Program Quality. (n.d.). Youth Program Quality Assessment ® and School-Age Program Quality Assessment. ; National Institute on Out-of-School Time. (2021). APT: Assessment of Program Practices Tool.

2Deschenes,S., Arbreton, A., Little, P., Herrera, C., Grossman, J., Weiss, B. (2010). Engaging older youth: Program and city-level strategies to support sustained participation in out-of-school time . Harvard Family Research Project.

3Afterschool Alliance. (2020). American After 3 PM.

4Carnegie Corporation New York. (1992). A matter of time: risk and opportunity in the nonschool hours . Carnegie Corporation of New York.

5U.S. Department of Education. (2019). 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) analytic support for evaluation and program monitoring: An overview of the 21st CCLC performance data: 2017-2018 (14th report). U.S. Department of Education.