Since 1935, when philanthropist Charles Stewart Mott made an investment to keep six schools open after hours in his adopted hometown of Flint, Mich., the Mott Foundation has supported the development of afterschool programs that provide children and young people — particularly those in underserved communities — with recreational and learning opportunities in a safe and supervised environment. In this short Q&A, Gwynn Hughes, who assumed responsibility for Mott’s Learning Beyond the Classroom portfolio less than a year ago, discusses the importance of afterschool programs and the Foundation’s current grantmaking strategies.
Mott: You are a relatively new program officer at Mott, in charge of one of its largest grantmaking portfolios. Tell us a little about your background.
Gwynn Hughes (GH): I joined the Mott staff in the fall of 2010. Before coming to Mott, I was the executive director of the Massachusetts Afterschool Partnership in Boston and a Foundation grantee for six years. That experience gave me good, on-the-ground exposure to K–12 education and its challenges.
I graduated from Wellesley College with a B.A. and received a master’s degree in music history from the University of Virginia. That may seem like odd preparation for a law degree, but I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer. So I enrolled and graduated from Northeastern University’s School of Law.
Very early in my legal career — after interning with the Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare — I got hooked on policy and system reform for low-income families. Working in the area of administrative law taught me that while systems are put in place with the best of intentions, helping to build connections between systems would be a powerful and effective way to better support disadvantaged families and children.
The need and potential to connect systems became even more apparent to me when I served as chief operating officer of the state’s Office of Child Care Services, and, later, as the chief of project management and policy support for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services. Many of the services developed as a safety net for poor families operate outside the education system and are delivered through nonprofit, community-based organizations. I kept thinking there must be a way to bring those systems together, and eventually I came to believe that afterschool programming provides the space where that can occur — where nonprofits and schools have an opportunity to connect to help low-income families.
Mott: As a practitioner and now as a funder of afterschool programming, why do you believe this type of educational activity fosters success in children and young people?
GH: Afterschool programs offer the opportunity to educate differently. I don’t believe you can develop a comprehensive education system without looking at those key hours between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. — and I’m very excited that, nationally, there’s a movement to look more closely at how we’re educating our kids and where we’re succeeding and where we are failing.
Classroom time is very important. But what happens during the regular school day is just one piece of the educational puzzle. Most students — including those from wealthier districts — need more than one kind of support, one kind of learning experience. A rich afterschool program — not necessarily one that is well-funded, but one that brings in community organizations and leverages their expertise in different areas — not only can support what’s learned in the classroom but can serve as an incubator for developing some really effective ways to educate.
Engaging afterschool programming and learning opportunities for kids — that are project-based and use the larger community as a classroom — help students make connections. They provide practical experiences that help students apply what they learn. The opportunity to help solve a problem in a real-life setting — it builds confidence.
I hope that eventually, the school day will have more characteristics of high quality afterschool. Infusing different kinds of learning experiences into the regular academic curriculum and using the community as part of the process not only helps build better, more connected citizens, but ultimately I think it’s a key to meaningful education reform.
Mott: Tell us a little more about the Mott model for afterschool programs and the funding strategies you are using to increase the quality and number of programs nationally.
GH: Mott’s model is very much school-linked or school-based, which we believe reinforces a seamless learning experience for kids and young people. Research has shown that the most effective afterschool programs are the result of partnerships between the school and its community — partnerships that provide continuity with the regular school curriculum and reinforce what students are learning through creative, student-focused activities. It’s a model of afterschool programming that connects with — but is not the same as — the day-to-day classroom experience.
Mott has focused its funding on national- and state-level organizations with the goal of building a system of support for afterschool. Our state afterschool networks — which now include 39 states — are the engine driving the development of policy and quality standards for local programs by identifying best practices for testing and replication. We are working toward building a sustainable structure of statewide, regional and local partnerships — particularly school-community partnerships — which in turn will inform policy development at all levels. We depend upon the network’s field experience to inform national education and youth policy initiatives.
Through our network of national partners, we provide a vehicle for continuous quality improvement for afterschool programs through training and information exchange. Our national partners provide expertise, technical assistance, tools and communications strategies to build support for more quality afterschool programs. Together with the states, they are working to encourage the development of local, state and national constituencies and systems that support afterschool, especially for underserved communities.
Mott: Where can people find out more about Mott’s afterschool grantmaking?
GH: There are a couple of great resources, including the Foundation’s website: we have the Advancing Afterschool page that we’re trying to build out to include more information and resources. Our website also has afterschool funding guidelines and a searchable database for individuals or organizations interested in specific grants.
The Afterschool Alliance is a great resource for districts interested in afterschool programming. The Afterschool Technical Assistance Collaborative’s new website also has information that may be of interest to afterschool practitioners.