Testimony of Ryllie Danylko, Policy Analyst, before the Committee of the Whole

March 1, 2023
Person Testifying: Ryllie Danylko
Title: Policy Analyst, DC Action
Testimony Heard By: Committee of the Whole
Type of Hearing: Oversight Hearing
Topic of Testimony: Performance Oversight Hearing for Education Agencies

March 1, 2023

Good morning, Chairman Mendelson and members of the Committee of the Whole. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Ryllie Danylko and I am a policy analyst with DC Action, home of the DC Out-of-School Time Coalition. DC Action uses research, data, and a racial equity lens to break down barriers that stand in the way of all kids reaching their full potential. Our collaborative advocacy initiatives bring the power of young people and all residents to raise their voices to create change. I am testifying today about the performance of education agencies that lead or support the District’s out-of-school-time sector, including the office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, the Office of Out of School Time Grants and Youth Outcomes, DCPS, and OSSE.

At today’s hearing, the Council will hear from parents, educators, young people and advocates about a wide range of education issues – how to ensure the District’s children are receiving a high-quality education, how to provide needed mental health and social emotional supports, how to keep our youth safe both in and out of school, and more. A common thread through all these important topics is out-of-school-time opportunities. Afterschool, summer, and other out-of-school-time programs are essential pieces of our young people’s growth and development. They are lifelines for working families who rely on them to know their children are engaged in enriching, supportive activities while they’re at work. OST programs provide safe and positive environments for youth in a time when gun violence is an ever-present concern. Yet the data is clear – there are not enough of these critical opportunities for the young people who need them.

This is why we were excited to hear Mayor Bowser pledge in her inaugural address to build the most robust before- and afterschool program in the nation. While DC has made some progress in expanding equitable access to out-of-school time (OST) programs in recent years, tens of thousands of youth and families still face barriers to participation, including cost, location, awareness, and accessibility for students with special needs. Community-based organizations and nonprofits that receive public funding to provide free or affordable afterschool and summer programming to young people continue to face financial and administrative barriers that threaten their sustainability. Program leaders and staff are often left out of conversations and decisions made by agencies that have major implications for their ability to serve youth and families.

The DC OST Coalition asks the Council to consider the following recommendations to improve the performance of the District’s education agencies that support OST:

  1. DC must strengthen the DC Office of Out of School Time Grants & Youth Outcomes (OST Office) and OSSE to improve Learn24 grant administration, community engagement, accountability, and transparency.

Grant administration: Community-based organizations that provide OST activities face long delays in receiving Learn24 grant funding, resulting in delayed program starts, staffing difficulties, and uncertainty around future programming. This issue is not new. In fact, last year’s COW budget report cited concerns with Learn24’s grant payment delivery stemming from testimony and conversations with Councilmembers about delayed payments, citing that “organizations are exposing themselves to great financial risk in large part because of the inability of the DME to successfully construct, implement, and execute a grant program.” The report included recommendations that Learn24, which at the time did not have a permanent executive director, complete the hiring process and direct the new ED to address this issue. Since then, Learn24 has hired Dr. Shontia Lowe to lead the office, and Dr. Lowe has made progress in addressing some of the underlying causes of these delays, including recently hiring three grants management employees. However, because these positions were vacant for many months, payment delays have persisted. We are hopeful that the remaining grant team positions will be filled by the mid-March deadline that the office gave, and that the new staff members will help alleviate the problem. We are also hopeful that the OST Office’s proposal to pay grant reviewers through a vendor contract to expedite the review process – as mentioned in the DME’s oversight responses – will speed up the timeline. Both of these factors, recruitment/staffing and vendor contracts, are important budget considerations to keep in mind.

Community engagement:The OST Office should conduct ongoing engagement with parents, youth, OST providers, and educators, including by meeting with the DC OST Coalition, DC PAVE, and young people who participate in afterschool and summer programs, as well as those who are disconnected from them. This type of engagement can provide critical feedback on OST offerings, challenges with program access, and the strategic direction of the Office. The Office should also improve diverse representation on the OST Commission, with an emphasis on parents and youth. We applaud the DME Office for hiring a Community and Engagement Specialist recommend that the Office utilizes this role to plan regular engagements with the various OST stakeholders, including surveys and in-person and virtual events to ensure that the needs and ideas of DC youth and families stay at the forefront of the Office’s work.

Accountability and transparency: The OST Office should share details about the grant funding strategy, including grant competitions, award amounts, and grantees. This information should be shared publicly each fiscal year and on an ongoing basis to the OST Commission. It is not enough to release this information once each year during performance oversight season.

In addition, OSSE must improve communication with the OST provider community around its decision-making processes for the $6 million+ 21st Century Community Learning Centers program that it manages. This year, many programs were blindsided when OSSE announced it would suspend the grant competition for one year, leaving programs that were depending on applying or re-applying for that funding scrambling to close the gap in their budgets. While OSSE has stated it is planning to use the funding to redesign and improve the program for future years, they have yet to release information about these changes and when programs can expect to have the opportunity to apply for funding again. OSSE must do so immediately.

  1. Ensure that DCPS security costs are not passed on to OST partners.

We thank DCPS and Chancellor Ferebee for committing to cover security costs for partners that provide free afterschool programs in School Year 2023-24, a decision that will ensure more funding will go directly toward serving students. In reversing an earlier decision that would have passed on these costs to nonprofit organizations that provide programming, DCPS acknowledged that afterschool programs are a critical part of students’ and working families’ lives. OST partners provide academic support, physical activity, mentorship, arts and music, and many more opportunities that complement school-day learning.

Last year was not the first time that DCPS asked OST partners to shoulder expensive security costs, but we must ensure it is the last time. Not doing so would cost nonprofits, many of which are operating with tight budgets, millions of dollars in funding that would otherwise go toward programming. DCPS must make it the school district’s official policy to cover the security costs for free afterschool program providers that meet DCPS partnership requirements. This will ensure that schools and families can rely on sustainable, affordable programming year after year.

  1. Accelerate the background clearance process for OST volunteers and staff by implementing a system that includes feedback loops, real-time status updates, and clear accountability to one government agency. 

While recent legislation has addressed one component that was slowing down the background clearance timeline, the process remains disjointed and not accountable to any agency. The Deputy Mayor for Education should have authority over background checks for OST staff and volunteers, and the DME should implement a system that is efficient and promotes student safety. The District should look to neighboring jurisdictions for processes and systems that more efficiently move employees through this process while still ensuring student safety. Youth and families cannot afford to wait weeks and months for OST programs to start because organizations are waiting to receive staff clearances.

  1. Increase local, recurring investments in affordable afterschool and summer programs close to young people’s schools and homes.

The OST Office should collaborate with OSSE, the Department of Parks and Recreation, DCPS, and charter schools to create a long-term strategy for fully funding afterschool and summer programs based on the findings in the forthcoming OST needs assessment report from the DC Policy Center, which is expected to be released later this month. The disjointed nature of DC’s OST sector is a barrier to universal and equitable access. We were pleased to learn in the DME’s performance oversight responses that beginning in November 2022, the OST Office launched a cross-agency network on OST programming to coordinate efforts across agencies responsible for afterschool and summer programming, including OSSE, DCPS, and DPR. According to the responses, “The goal of this cross-agency network is to ensure that service delivery is aligned and coordinated across agencies, and that programs are accessible for all students.” We ask the OST Office to share more information about this network’s work.

Expanding OST opportunities is a matter of racial equity, as Black and brown families face greater challenges to accessing afterschool programs compared to white families. Currently, almost one-half of DC students (45%) participate in out-of-school time programs, most often at school (69%), but this engagement is not the same across key demographics. Roughly three in five white students (58%) participate in these types of programs compared to only two in five Black/African American (41%) and Hispanic/Latinx (43%) students.

How the District spends its OST funds is also key to ensuring equity and accessibility of programs. DC must fund high-quality OST programs with multi-year, year-round grants to promote sustainability of organizations and make programming for youth more reliable. When trusted, in-demand organizations are required to constantly re-apply for funding, programming that parents and youth rely on is interrupted or delayed, and there is added work for an already strained OST office.

Additionally, the OST Office must increase the maximum grant award for small nonprofit OST programs from $25,000 to $75,000. Rising costs are stretching the budgets of small, grassroots organizations and making it more difficult for them to sustain their programs. Boosting the amount of funding these organizations can receive will ensure that more families can continue to access this unique, community-based programming.

  1. Expand program access for youth with disabilities and special needs. 

Students who require special accommodations should not be left out of afterschool and summer opportunities. Yet each year, parents report difficulties in finding programs that have the resources to support their children with disabilities and special needs. We appreciate the work that Councilmember Henderson has done to draft and introduce the OST Special Education Standards and Inclusion Act. In order for this legislation to fulfill its intent, it must be amended with more inclusive language that expands the definition of the target population beyond just students who receive IEP services, and include more broadly students with disabilities and special needs. In addition, the OST Office and other agencies must be involved in conversations about how to properly equip grantees with the resources, personnel, and other costs that come along with meeting the new standards.

  1. Schedule a DC Council public roundtable on OST. 

The breadth of education issues at the COW education hearing makes it difficult for Councilmembers to give each issue the attention it deserves. The coalition is restating our call for the COW to hold a public roundtable to allow agency leaders and the public to share their perspectives on pressing issues related to OST. Members of the Committee, including the Chairman and several other Councilmembers, have supported this ask, but it has not been put on the COW calendar. The upcoming release of the OST needs assessment report is an opportunity to hold a public hearing about how the District can meet the unmet demand for OST that this report is expected to show.

Thank you for your time and consideration. If you have any questions I can be reached at the contact information below.

Ryllie Danylko

Policy Analyst

DC Action