Greetings, Chairman Mendelson and members of the Committee of the Whole. Thank you for the opportunity to address the Council today. My name is Ryllie Danylko. I am a policy analyst at DC Action, home of the DC Out-of-School Time Coalition. I am testifying today on behalf of the coalition’s nearly 70 member organizations to share feedback about the performance of the District’s education agencies in regard to OST programs in the last fiscal year, and how they can improve performance this year in collaboration with OST programs and the youth and families who they serve.

This is a crucial moment for OST in the District. An infusion of temporary federal funds for education and OST are bolstering opportunities. Leadership transitions are occurring at both Learn24 and the OSSE division that oversees 21st Century Community Learning Center grants. The strategic plan for the Learn24 office is reaching the end of its 3-year time period. And young people continue to experience a range of academic, mental, and emotional impacts from the ongoing pandemic. Given all of these factors, education agencies must move forward with community engagement as a top priority.

The District should create an updated strategic plan for OST in partnership with families, youth, educators, OST programs and community partners to ensure access to in-demand programs for all youth, and commit to funding OST for all youth with local, recurring dollars. At the end of last year, the OST Office lost an incredible champion for OST programs when Mila Yochum left the director role. As the Deputy Mayor for Education’s office searches for her permanent replacement, this is an opportunity for the office to work closely with parents, youth, advocates, and OST program directors and staff to ensure that the new director possesses the same values Mila held as director, including a dedication to community engagement, quality in OST, and collaboration with stakeholders – including transparency and accountability when it comes to decision-making and communication. The transition also comes at the same time as the expiration of the OST office’s strategic plan which covered 2019 through 2022. This, too, is an opportunity the District must seize to bring in the voices of parents, youth, advocates, and OST programs to collectively shape the vision for OST in the coming years.

The strategic plan must be based on current data about OST participation and access, including information about gaps in service by neighborhood and program type and about OST opportunities for students with special needs and those who are English language learners. Unfortunately, the city has fallen behind on data gathering and reporting. The most recent needs assessment of OST in DC was released in 2017 and does not reliably reflect the current needs. We know that the OST Office is planning to complete an updated analysis of OST supply and demand in FY22, but that report is long overdue. The community deserves an updated work plan and an accurate timeline for the release of this study. We also don’t know what the scope of the work will be. We do not know if data collection or analysis has started. Nor do we know how the voices of parents and providers will be incorporated into the process. This is too important for the city to go it alone. We urge the District to include OST stakeholders in the planning, data collection and analysis of this critically important data.The city must prioritize this project and proactively engage the key stakeholders–including parents, youth, and OST program managers and staff–to be partners in this assessment.

Survey data from the Afterschool Alliance collected in early 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the District and across the world, showed that for every DC child enrolled in an afterschool program, one more was waiting to get in. Planning for the future of OST in DC also means taking a look at what it will cost to provide access to affordable, high-quality, and in-demand OST programs for all DC youth. With data from the aforementioned needs assessment, we will be able to determine how the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the OST landscape, what new challenges have arisen for both programs and families, and what public investments must be made to ensure a sustainable future for OST. We know anecdotally and from national trends that the sector is currently facing a number of challenges, including staffing shortages, a need to operate below capacity due to health and safety protocols, and increased costs incurred to provide PPE and other health and safety measures, which often strain current budget levels.

Last year, the budgets of the OST Office and Learn24 network received a significant boost, thanks to both the Biden Administration earmarking one-time funds for afterschool and summer enrichment programming and the Council transferring an additional $5 million to this budget. These investments signaled a commitment to stabilizing the District’s OST sector after years of public disinvestment. As the Mayor and the Council look at priorities for Fiscal Year 2023, they must double down on this commitment by dedicating local recurring dollars to supplant the one-time federal relief investments (which will run out in 2024), starting with investing an additional $2 million in the FY23 budget. This will ensure that the OST sector does not experience major disruptions when these funds expire, which would undo any progress made in filling gaps or building capacity in the two years covered by these funds.

To achieve greater family engagement, the OST Office should commit to improving the way it shares information about OST programs and opportunities with families. Many parents and program staff have shared that the current Learn24 online program finder tool is not user-friendly, and some families are unaware that such a tool even exists. To better connect young people with programs that meet their needs and align with their interests, the OST office must overhaul the online program finder tool and develop additional innovative ways to match students with programs. But again, these things need to be created in close partnership with end users – the parents and youth that are expected to access these resources. Otherwise the District runs the risk of wasting additional dollars on tools that are not used.

The District has an affirmative responsibility to improve the transparency and accessibility of OST funding allocation and spending. The federal funds for OST were passed from OSSE to the OST Office and allocated to a number of initiatives, including a new scholarship program, expanded summer and school year grants, and high-impact tutoring grants for OST organizations. The OST Office should provide updates on the progress of these programs and initiatives, and how they are helping provide greater access to OST for DC youth and families. Transparency is not only important as a marker of good government, it helps the entire OST community understand the state of play. If there are questions or concerns about how dollars should be spent, OST programs, advocates, and parents are here to provide specific feedback on how the District should allocate funds during Fiscal Year 2023 and beyond. Programs have also shared concerns about a lack of transparency around individual grant application reviews, scoring, and appeals. To ensure that this process is fair, objective, and founded on evidence-based program offerings, OSSE and the OST Office must commit to increasing transparency with 21st Century Community Learning Center applications and Learn24 applications, respectively.

OST programs are a trusted bridge between many families and schools, and research shows that programs with stronger relationships with school teachers and principals are more successful at improving students’ outcomes. DCPS has increasingly acknowledged this and has made some inroads to improve relationships between schools and OST partners, including the release of a school partnerships toolkit for DCPS principals to use to ensure OST partnerships are accessible to students and meeting the needs of school communities. However, DCPS, public charter schools, OSSE, and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education still have a great deal of work to do in order to improve engagement with their OST partners. Failure to bring parents and OST programs to the table in planning discussions impedes their ability to effectively serve youth, as evidenced by ongoing delays in the DCPS clearance process that has left many programs understaffed while team members wait weeks or months to receive clearance to work in schools. We know this issue goes beyond just OST partners with DCPS, and that DCPS is working with a new contractor to speed up the process. However, it is unacceptable that more than halfway through the school year, some OST programs are still dealing with this challenge, which is exacerbating widespread staffing shortages. DCPS must provide an update on the status of their pending clearances for DCPS schools and OST staff, along with actions they are taking to ensure that future applicants can move through the process in a timely manner.

Fortunately, it is not too late to act for the summer of 2022. DCPS and other agencies can proactively engage the community right now with OST partners about summer learning opportunities, to ensure that DC youth and families have access to enriching, affordable, and joyful activities this summer. More than ever, summer programs are a key component of students’ education, as the ongoing pandemic continues to disrupt learning and students deal with fallout from social isolation and losing family members to the pandemic. Mental health challenges have reached crisis levels. Last year, many OST programs who partner with schools reported that their school partners and DCPS at large did not engage meaningfully with the programs. This resulted in some programs not serving as many students as they otherwise would have with opportunities for learning, mentoring, and fun and creative activities. Planning for summer learning has already started both in schools and in OST programs, and District education agencies must make intentional efforts to partner with programs now.

In closing, it is important to recognize the direct link between lack of opportunities like OST for young people and participation in risky behaviors and crime. District officials must recognize that OST programming keeps youth safe and invest in OST as part of a youth and community safety solution. The District must refrain from excessively punitive responses to young people who commit crimes and instead focus on both prevention and restorative justice and positive youth development. Leaders must also refrain from perpetuating these false narratives about DC’s youth. They should publicly recognize the fact that overall juvenile crime is down 51 percent from 2019 to 2021, and violent juvenile crime is down 46 percent over the same period. A spike in newsmaking crimes committed by youth should not overshadow these facts, and it would be a mistake to react to recent events with harsh policies that could ultimately hurt our youth. For example, Mayor Bowser’s recently announced year-round partnership to address violent crime in areas of Wards 7 and 8, which the mayor said will involve community partners. But there were no affirmative statements made about investments in OST programs, many of which have long-standing relationships with communities and could certainly use additional resources to provide even more opportunities that keep youth and their families safe.

Research shows that the peak in juvenile crime on school days occurs between 2-6 pm, and that afterschool programs provide youth an alternative that keeps them safe and gives parents a peace of mind. Afterschool programs ensure that young people are surrounded by supportive adults, have a place where they feel safe and belong, and have the support to build foundational skills—like the ability to work in teams and problem solve. DC Action held a community conversation with DC youth, youth development advocates and Attorney General Karl Racine in January to discuss what young people to feel safe in their neighborhoods and access opportunities that will help them meet their full potential. Overwhelmingly, the youth said that what they need are accessible, engaging, and meaningful out-of-school time programs, opportunities to work and earn money, and accountability from adults in power. What they did not ask for was more police in their neighborhoods or responses to crime that directly and indirectly harm Black and brown youth as opposed to nurturing their growth. As the Committee of the Whole considers the FY23 budget and analyzes the performance of education agencies this past year, I ask that you move forward with all of this in mind, and a plan to more deeply involve youth, families, OST programs, and youth advocates in deciding what comes next for education and OST.