By Sam Piha
Susan Neufeld is Director of Child and Youth Development Services at HOPE Through Housing Foundation, where she has responsibility for child and youth development programming at over 40 of National CORE’s affordable housing communities. She is a leader in promoting young people's access to housing-based quality afterschool programs. Ms. Neufeld agreed to answer our interview questions below.
Q: Can you say just a word about HOPE Through Housing and the Afterschool and Beyond programs?
A: After School and Beyond is an afterschool program that is delivered onsite of low income apartment housing. Our program model emphasizes children’s social-emotional development as much as their academic development. Consequently, we offer KidzLit (a literacy program), PeaceBuilders (a character development program), and Virtual Vacation (a project-based learning program that helps kids explore their world).
A: Currently, we have after school programs serving 35 properties in California and one in Arkansas. We’re poised to expand our programs into Texas. Some neighboring properties share a program. Two of our programs are “tutoring only” because of very small learning centers. One program is a high school program located in Rialto and funded by ASSETs.
In the 2010-11 school year, we served over 4,000 K-12 youth.
|After School and Beyond|
Q: There are those that say afterschool programs should be located on school sites or in the larger community. What are the advantages to offering afterschool programs in housing settings?
A: Our programs do not compete with school or community-based (such a Boys and Girls Club) programs. Most of our properties have large numbers of school-age children – far more than we can serve in our learning centers. We are grateful that youth have many options for after school participation in their community.
Our goal is to serve kids where they live and eliminate many barriers that prevent participation in school and community centers. For example, many of our youth cannot go to a school based program because they don’t have transportation home. We are able to offer an exceptional program in a space that is viewed as an extension of the home. Parents know that their children are safe, well-served, and loved.
Because of our proximity to children’s homes and our strong relationships with property management, we also get to know families and the challenges they face, such as divorce or job loss. This allows us to respond to youth with added supports.
Q: How are the children and families of affordable housing settings the same or different from other state-funded afterschool programs?
A: Our youth have the same characteristics as youth who attend a state-funded afterschool program in a low income community. Their families are struggling with economic hardships and they often live in neighborhoods that are challenged.
However, some of are youth live on properties that are located in affluent communities. In some ways, these families are more challenged by a lack of programs and services that meet their needs. In one community we serve, there is no public bus and the local grocery stores are Trader Joe’s, Bristol Farms, and Pavilions – markets that target middle and high earners. In this context, children can feel “less than” their more affluent peers. The youth in our programs have a shared experience and have a place where they can feel comfortable.
Q: Many housing-based programs suffer due to difficulties attracting and retaining youth. What is your record in these areas?
A: Attendance is tough for everyone! We have very high expectations for daily attendance and retention. While we’re improving, we’re still below our target of 85% ADA. In some ways, it’s harder for us than for school-based programs where kids transition from the classroom into the program by walking across the hall.
There are a lot of reasons for inconsistent or low attendance: evictions, move-outs, shared custody, and involvement in other extracurricular activities. Sometimes latchkey kids are not mandated by their parents to attend program. Our most surprising reason: our kids love the program so much that parents report using it as punishment. When children don’t behave at home, they are not allowed to attend program!
We address this by communicating with parents, hosting family involvement nights to connect parents and children to the program, creating incentives for attendance, and promoting the program when new families move in. That said, we have to work hard all of the time to keep our attendance at our target. Our best strategy is to have a vibrant program staffed by caring and energetic staff that attract youth.
Q: What do you do within your programs to ensure that they are rich in quality learning experiences?
A: We stress to parents that we are not a homework completion program but a homework assistance program. Our belief is that academic success will only carry our kids so far. To truly succeed, youth need to have a broad vision for themselves – a vision that they can do great things and be great people.
To achieve this, we selected curricula that emphasize exploration while reinforcing academic skills. KidzLit is all about reading motivation – an important component of literacy. PeaceBuilders is focused on creating a culture of peace in the program and community. Virtual Vacation emphasizes global competence, giving youth the opportunity to truly explore other worlds, countries, and cultures. Wherever possible, we integrate these curricula. Youth “travel” to Japan (Virtual Vacation), understand the impact of World War II on Japanese history (PeaceBuilders), read books about Japanese culture (KidzLit), learn key Japanese phrases, and prepare vegetarian sushi.
Q: How do you know whether these programs are effective?
A: Each year, we conduct a thorough program evaluation that examines program quality (how our programs stand up to industry standards), outputs (what we did), and outcomes (our impact). Currently, we’re engaged with Vital Research to create a new evaluation structure for the 2012-13 school year. Our hope is that we capture the richness of our program and how it’s making a measurable difference in the lives of those we serve.
Q: Do you invest at all in staff training and support?
A: Absolutely. Behind our curricula, we offer hours of staff development, coaching, training, and site visits. Our belief is that staff cannot give what they do not have. If we want our children to feel connected, supported, and engaged, then we must create a community of support, connection, and engagement with our staff.
Training topics range from afterschool basics (e.g., behavior management, planning a day) to creating a strong site team to responding appropriately to trauma and loss. We have learned that a successful training program is one that includes youth development, afterschool operations, team functioning, and effective communication.
Q: As you look to the future of the afterschool movement, are there any serious risks and opportunities that you see on the horizon?
A: My biggest frustration has been raising awareness of our unique program niche. Most funders don’t know about housing-based afterschool programs and the important role that we play. They also do not understand that we are not competitive for state or federal funding through ASES or 21st Century, which favor school-based programs. These funding streams are amazing and have changed the landscape of afterschool in California. Unfortunately, the structure of the funding virtually makes programs like ours ineligible.
My wish is that funders make room for all types of youth programs – school-based, center-based, and housing-based. Giving youth and families a range of options that meet a range of needs ensures that all young people have afterschool supports and opportunities.
Q: The Learning in Afterschool & Summer project promotes 5 key learning principles. How do you see these fitting into or guiding your programs?
A: We strive to embody all five learning principles in our program, especially through our hands-on, project-based programming. I love the LIAS principles because they push our thinking beyond homework, grades, and test scores into the realm of self-efficacy, vision, and mastery. To me, these are essential to the success of our youth.
Prior to her current position at The HOPE Through Housing Foundation, Ms. Neufeld served as the Collaboration Manager for Mustangs on the Move, a consortium of community-based organizations that provides after school programming to high school youth in Northwest Pasadena. She also worked for Communities Organizing Resources to Advance Learning (CORAL) Pasadena, a multi-city after school initiative launched by the Irvine Foundation, first as a program evaluator then as Associate Director. Ms. Neufeld holds a Master’s degree in Applied Developmental Psychology from Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California. She currently serves on the Si Se Puede! Learning Centers Advisory Council of the Cesar Chavez Foundation, on the 2012 BOOST (Best of Out of School Time) Conference Leadership Team, and is a part of the Learning in Afterschool & Summer Work Group.