Bela Shah Spooner
NY EPFP 99-00
Bela Shah Spooner is the program manager for expanded learning in the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families at the National League of Cities (NLC). For over a decade, she has been at NLC helping to inform municipal officials about the importance of afterschool and summer learning opportunities. She launched NLC’s Afterschool Policy Advisors Network (APAN) in 2005, which has grown to include more than 400 cities, and has provided technical assistance to more than 40 cities focusing on building citywide systems of afterschool programs. She has also authored Cities and Statewide Afterschool Networks Partnering to Support Afterschool Programs and NLC’s 2011 report, Municipal Leadership Afterschool: Citywide Approaches Spreading across the Country.
Prior to NLC, Spooner worked for the Coalition for Community Schools at the Institute for Educational Leadership and co-wrote the Coalition report, Making the Difference: Research and Practice in Community Schools.
Why Afterschool Programs are Important to City Leaders
A huge part of our work at NLC is to not only help our members—elected city officials and senior city staff—understand their role in creating more afterschool programs, but also to help other partners like school districts better understand the role that cities can play in these efforts. We know that kids spend only a fraction of their time in school, so we use that message to communicate how they can use the rest of the hours of the day to support students.
Many city leaders have become champions for afterschool and summer learning programs because they understand that they’re also responsible for the children and youth in their city in the out-of-school time hours and it’s a great opportunity for city leaders to get involved and support young people. One of the major factors that has led to greater involvement of city leaders is public safety. Data shows that between 3 and 6 pm, there are higher levels of crime committed to and by kids. City leaders recognize that quality afterschool programs can keep kids safe and engaged in learning, and reduce crime in the community. They also understand the broader implications that afterschool programs bring, academic and otherwise, to their cities. Local leaders are particularly supportive of increasing academic achievement because of the great impact it has on communities around jobs and economic development, and supporting working families.
City leaders are also becoming more aware of the resources that are available to support kids in their communities. Many cities are already investing in infrastructure and programming to support youth in multiple ways, such as libraries and parks and recreation, so it’s not a far reach to get them more involved in supporting afterschool learning initiatives. A challenge we see is that departments and activities within city governments are often siloed, so efforts that touch young people are happening but are not coordinated in a streamlined way to maximize impact.
Serving Young People in Different Areas
We know there are a lot of afterschool and youth-focused programs in communities but they are not necessarily distributed in a way that is accessible to young people. In many cases, demographics and income distribution in cities shift over time and change to the point where the existing infrastructure is no longer as effective as it once was. To address these challenges, we work with cities to begin with a mapping process to get a visual of where programs, schools, and kids are located, as well as where there are areas of high poverty, crime, and teen pregnancy. This allows cities to identify barriers, such as public transportation gaps or new highways that have made it difficult for young people to access different parts of town. Mapping helps to clarify the misconception of why needs aren’t being met when there may be services available in the community—sometimes, they just aren’t accessible to the people who need them and honestly, many parents don’t even have access to the information of where those programs may be. When more resources and partners come together during the mapping process, it helps provide a better sense of where to target resources and efforts to fill the gaps.
The Role of Students, Families, and Communities in Expanding Afterschool
One way for students, families, and community members to be involved is to track the campaigns and priority issues of elected city officials to better understand where they are coming from—figure out how to talk about the issue in a way that will resonate for them. In our case, we’ve found success in approaching it from a public safety and economic development lens. We also encourage mayors to use their convening authority to bring together community stakeholders to keep them informed on what is happening in their city.
Providers and their supporters have a unique role in that they can present information on their programs and develop relationships with the mayor’s office and city council in a number of ways. In addition to participating in community meetings and spreading the word about their work among community members, one of the best ways they can engage city leaders is to simply invite them to their program. Mayors and city councilmembers enjoy opportunities to engage with their community members, especially young people. Providing them with photo opportunities and positive press, and getting them to your program to interact with young people is a great way to showcase their work and give credit to elected officials for supporting what they do. In short, it’s all about relationship building. If afterschool is important to you or you’re a provider, you can position yourself as the mayor’s go-to person for that type of work.
Cross-Boundary Leadership and Challenges
So many stakeholders in the community have their own interests in supporting young people, from public safety to economic development to quality of life, but they all have the same broad focus: helping kids be successful. When you’re building a citywide or county-wide system, you have to think about the unlikely or unusual players that you want to bring into the conversation to make sure it’s comprehensive and representative of key voices and include people with influenceOne way to bring those people together is to speak their language to get your message across. Use their focus and interests to build the message that you share to get them involved in your cause. The mayor’s bully pulpit is a powerful tool for this, so bringing in city leaders can help bring in even more diverse resources and supports. The goal is to galvanize folks to invest time and money in your cause by building and leveraging relationships within your community.
Cross-boundary leadership can be challenging in a number of ways. Limited funding and resources is a challenge in many respects, from potential partners seeing each other as competition for competitive grants and organizations working on their priorities with limited resources to few funding streams available to allow good ideas to be carried out. Loss of autonomy over an area of work is another challenge, and providers and organizations can be hesitant to partner up because they will lose that control over their work and how it is carried out.
The important thing to remember when facing these challenges is that we’re all in this work for the same reason, and working together helps to create a stronger system to serve more kids. It communicates the collective benefit of everyone’s work and inspires people to come together for the greater good.
Leadership Lessons Learned
The biggest leadership lesson I’ve learned is to be confident in the knowledge and expertise you bring to the table. It can be intimidating to talk with mayors and other leaders who you see on TV or read about in the news, but it’s important to remember that you’re talking to someone who ran for office to represent their city and the people in it… and the youth are an essential part of the success and appeal of that city. Remember that you have direct knowledge and first-hand information (and perhaps even good data!) about the needs and challenges that a subsection of youth face in the city. What you know may be very valuable for a city official to hear and understand. Instead of getting caught up with titles and who someone is, you have to focus on the fact that you know what you’re talking about and it’s important for them to know about it as well if you’re trying to improve the odds for the children you work with. Present yourself as a partner to help and bring additional data and information if they request more and see where the conversation may go.
EPFP had a big influence on my professional career. When I was a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University I got pulled in to help run the New York site. It was so interesting to watch the process that the next year I asked if I could be a Fellow. The EPFP experience enhanced my graduate education experience, augmented the policy work I was interested in, and completely redirected my path. It was through EPFP that I met Mike Usdan, President of IEL at the time and now a senior fellow there . He saw the spark I had for federal education policy, and every time he saw me he encouraged me to move to DC and gave me opportunities to connect with people here. That’s when I met Marty Blank and took an opportunity to support the Coalition for Community Schools. And many years later, I’m proud to now serve on its Steering Committee. EPFP gave me a basic framework of education policy but also exposure to a new world and potential job opportunities. It helped me look at issues from different angles and perspectives, and was a great way to start my professional career.