BY ANN RICHARDS
Leveraging the best of what works in afterschool policy and practice is the motivating principle behind the Mott Foundation’s national Statewide Afterschool Network
initiative. [See related Gwynn Hughes Q&A
] To that end, the Collaborative Communications Group
(Collaborative) has worked over the past nine years to ensure that the networks are connected, have relevant resources, can share challenges and are recognized for their successes.
“From the first, the national network has been about creating a learning community — its focus is idea sharing, training and leveraging each other’s work,” said Terri Ferinde Dunham, who coordinates the activities of the educators and organizations that belong to the national network at the Collaborative.
Afterschool programs offer the opportunity to educate differently.
“Ultimately, our goal is to provide the supports and create the infrastructure needed to shape national afterschool priorities — priorities that lead to better programs for children and families, especially in high-poverty areas.”
For more than 10 years, Dunham’s organization, an education consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., has partnered with education organizations, foundations, government agencies, school districts, and community-based organizations interested in improving public education and afterschool learning throughout the United States.
In 2002, the Mott Foundation tapped the firm’s expertise in network building, funding a series of national meetings uniting a first cohort of nine statewide afterschool networks. A longtime funder of the afterschool concept, the Foundation was keenly aware that demand for quality afterschool programs exceeded availability. To scale up and sustain successful afterschool programs, individual public and private sector organizations would need to coordinate their efforts for maximum impact.
“It seems intuitive, but it was a new idea at the time,” Dunham said of the Foundation’s efforts to increase cooperation among state agencies. “It represented a first attempt to create a national network dedicated to building the community collaborations and public/private partnerships needed to increase program quality and sustainability.”
Now numbering 39, the statewide networks have grown in scale and sophistication, in part due to the support and resources of the Afterschool Technical Assistance Collaborative (ATAC). Composed of eight national organizations  that provide a customized menu of technical assistance services to the networks, ATAC also is supported by Collaborative Communications Group.
Together with network members, these national organizations are the “engines that drive the development of best practices and policies, like in the area of quality standards, for afterschool programming,” said Dunham. “Ultimately, more quality standards translate into better programs that lead to more supportive policies for afterschool programs. In the end, that’s what is really rewarding about this work.”
“We exist to help the state networks achieve their goals,” said Victoria Wegener, lead facilitator of ATAC and a partner at Mainspring Consulting
, a Maryland-based organization that works with foundations, policymakers and state and community leaders to design effective programs for children, families and communities.
“Through direct contact, referrals and most recently, through peer networking, ATAC fosters cross-system information exchanges among the national partner organizations — which represent government, finance, advocacy and data development and collection — with the state and local programs that are working to increase and improve state policies and practices that support high-quality, sustainable afterschool programming,” she explained.
The Foundation has provided more than $7.5 million in support of the national network since 2002, an investment that is benefiting a wide pool of afterschool practitioners and policymakers.
“We reach out to concentric circles of stakeholders — beginning with ATAC and the leaders and steering committees of each of the state networks, expanding to individuals who attend our national meetings and from there to key support organizations and practitioners who use our online resources,” Dunham said.
The network uses “multiple vehicles for connection” to link its diverse membership.
“Each of our networks face challenges specific to their locale, and helping them deal with those challenges requires meaningful, continuous communication — be it online, face-to-face or through conferences and regional meetings,” Dunham continued. “We want our members to lean on and depend upon the national network — we want to become embedded in their regular work routine.”
According to Mary Sutton, executive director of the Michigan After-School Partnership
, “Being part of the national network — being part of a strong collective voice — not only validates what we do, but gives us the confidence that comes from knowing we’re not out there building bridges and overcoming roadblocks on our own." A member of the network since 2005, Sutton notes that the peer-to-peer support and the opportunity to tap the resources available through ATAC’s national contacts are “a big advantage to our work.”
To further strengthen members’ capacity to foster state, regional and local partnerships, as well as to secure resources to sustain high-quality afterschool programs, the Mott Foundation provides each state network with a three-year grant of $225,000 to support a variety of projects.
Michigan’s statewide afterschool network is using Mott funding to boost student achievement by linking activities to the regular school day.
“Our focus right now is on improving the quality of afterschool programs through professional development,” said Sutton. “We’re using our Mott funding to build afterschool capacity in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Our goal is to boost student achievement in these areas by linking afterschool activities to what they are learning during the regular school day.”
Linking the state-based work and helping leverage the lessons learned are guiding principles of the network’s continuing development, says the Collaborative’s Dunham.
“We believe networks should be learner initiated and learner driven. Over the past two years, we’ve experienced a subtle shift in how the network operates. We’ve noticed that there’s much more peer-to-peer sharing, particularly online. We’ve come to recognize that the best resources for network members are network members,” Dunham said.
In response to demand from the field, the Collaborative planned to introduce a “more dynamic, responsive on line forum” for its members later this year, making it much easier to track “hot topics” and provide the appropriate technical assistance quickly.
“We tend to the details,” said Dunham. “We serve as the network’s sherpa — helping members make the right connections, setting the table for the right discussions, designing the right meetings at the right time, and keeping the contact lists up to date.
“Network building is complicated work. But that’s how a common vision — a common agenda — is built.”
 National Governors Association; Council of Chief State School Officers; National League of Cities; Afterschool Alliance; Finance Project; National Conference of State Legislatures; American Institute for Research; and Terry Peterson at the College of Charleston, South Carolina.