Staff Q&A with Nancy Peter

It’s easy for Nancy Peter to love her job, she says, because she created it herself.

In 2003, after a career wearing hats such as environmental educator, school programs coordinator, education director, curriculum manager, and policy specialist, Peter had the idea to create a resource center that would help the types of educational staff she had been involved with herself.

“I often say I made a job out of my personality,” she says with a laugh.

She pitched the idea to Penn, and after securing a planning grant from the William Penn Foundation, she founded the Out-of-School Time Resource Center (OSTRC) within the School of Social Policy & Practice—a hub that promotes youth achievement by supporting and enriching programming through research, policy recommendations, and resource coordination. She later co-founded the Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative, the Center’s sister organization that aims to strengthen youth sports groups.

“Out-of-school time is a great opportunity to cultivate academic achievement in everything from improved grades to high school graduation,” says Peter, an Ed.D. graduate of Penn’s Graduate School of Education (GSE). “It’s of interest to people in social work in terms of violence, pregnancy, and drug and alcohol use reduction. It’s a great place to cultivate workplace skills. Physical health and wellness are also a priority, and out-of-school time can affect obesity reduction, nutrition, and fitness.”

In other words, out-of-school time for kids can be supremely beneficial in almost every area of child and youth development. But the field, Peter says, is still largely considered the Wild West of educational professions—a notion Peter and her team are charged with overturning.

“[My field] is sort of a hybrid between social work and education,” Peter says. “It’s often called ‘after school,’ but ‘out-ofschool’ is a little bit more comprehensive: it’s for before and after, it’s summer, evenings, and weekends.”

The Current recently visited Peter at the Center’s home at 3815 Walnut St. to discuss the value of professional development for educators, the Center’s unique partnership with the School District of Philadelphia, and just how beneficial out-of-school time is to youth.

Q: What types of needs are the Center and Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative meeting?
A: The impetus for starting the OSTRC was, in my work previously, I was spending a lot of time being a broker and a resource, and I wanted to institutionalize these services in the best possible way so that people had a place they could come to get resources. [They] include a lot of online resources such as a 55-agency online professional development calendar. We have a couple of resource directories of field trips and outreach services. We also have monthly peer networking meetings that attract 50 to 75 people each, and we’re trying to pair people with resources. But what has really evolved as our niche as well is that we try to introduce people to one another. One of our biggest accomplishments is always going to be when two people partner and we’re no longer needed. The other thing that we recognized early on as a need is that all of this is about professional development for staff, and I was really curious about what kind of professional development truly impacts staff, programs, and students, and assumed that there were tools out there to measure that impact. In our field, it turns out, there weren’t. We ended up developing a set of research-based qualitative and quantitative instruments for measuring the impact of professional development. We would do focus groups, observations, mid-year and end-of-year surveys, but we also did a few assessments where three years later we went back to people who were in the program and asked, ‘To what extent did this affect your professional trajectory or your program or your kids?’ We’re really interested in that question,
so we developed a whole research side of the Center, which is about promising practices in professional development, evaluating professional development, and training trainers.

Q: Have you noticed a shift in need for the Center’s services over the past 10 or so years since it was founded?
A: Not really. I think that things are not changing, but growing. There’s much more of an interest in career ladders and lattices because out-of-school time is being established as a career. So we spend more time looking at credential programs and looking at staff competencies, and that wasn’t a big priority 11 years ago. There’s a greater interest in professional development and taking that seriously, so our work with informing professional development has become much more useful and utilized locally as well as nationally. I think that certainly having a First Lady who is committed to obesity reduction really paved the way for the interest in youth sports. I will say that when I started in this field, sports were thought of as the lower level, and it’s come completely full circle. Not only do kids need physical exercise, but it’s a way to cultivate other skills like grit, resilience, and cooperation.

Q: Do you think that growth, at least in Philadelphia, can be attributed to the School District’s funding crisis?
A: I’d say definitely yes, but the School District has always been incredibly constricted since I started this. I think that’s one reason why the field has blossomed, because there are so many fewer things you can do during the school day. For instance, for the people offering services through our field-trip or traveling-services directories or outreach programs, their main clients used to be school day field trips or in-school presentations, and now they’re marketing more toward out-of-school time programs. And from the parent and the student and the family perspective, there are absolutely fewer activities available during the school day—and not just enrichment like sports or art, but also science and math and literacy. We have a great relationship with the School District, in particular with [School District Director for Afterschool Programs] Vicki Ellis and with the Office of Athletics. [School District Executive Director of Athletics] Robert Coleman has never been proprietary. He’s always said, ‘We can’t provide as much as we’d like to anymore.’ There’s a sense on many levels that there’s a greater need for schools and out-of-school time programs to cooperate because neither one of them can help the whole child on their own.

Q: What is one of the biggest challenges that these staff members you work with face?
A: They’re expected to do a ton of things. They’re expected to be art teachers and fitness coaches and math tutors, and they’re supposed to have a lot of skills. They’re supposed to work well with youth, parents, and school staff if they’re in a school. There are a lot of changing priorities. One year a funder will decide a particular topic is an important thing, and then all of a sudden how you run your program will change, and the funder’s priorities will cycle again. Lack of adequate funding is also a huge challenge. Similarly, people come in with different kinds of training. I’m a certified classroom teacher—I had to do an internship and coursework, I had to practice before I was allowed to teach in a classroom, and there’s not that level of vetting across the board for out-of-school time staff, so the quality of the staff is inconsistent and the preparation of the staff is inconsistent, and that’s a huge challenge.

Q: How has the Center affected local and national policy?
A: We all go about policy differently. Some people do it top-down; I think we do it from the bottom up. We will make a case for the quality and the utility and the outcomes of what we’re doing and ultimately, it gets embraced. From the perspective of policy in terms of legislation, we do a lot of work with what’s called PSAYDN [Pennsylvania Out-of-School Statewide Afterschool/Youth Development Network]. I was down in Washington [D.C.] this year with PSAYDN colleagues, where I received an award as an Afterschool for All Champion from the Afterschool Alliance. We went around and talked to various policymakers about the need for out-of-school time. I interpret ‘policy’ broadly. We have advocated over and over again for out-of-school time. We have also been advocating for why  professional development is important. We’ve written lots of articles about long-term impact. From a policy perspective, we’re also moving the needle in terms of people recognizing and funding out-of-school time and professional development. The Philadelphia Sports Collaborative has a partnership with the U.S.  Attorney’s Office, the Department of Human Services, and Family Court, and we have a program called Sports for Juvenile Justice. For kids who are adjudicated, in lieu of community service, they can participate in a sports program and get immersed in positive youth development. The other policy impact I’ve had is, since I got my doctorate at GSE two years ago, I’ve been literally lobbying to teach informal education at GSE. GSE can be pretty traditional. It’s about formal education. This coming year, for the second year in a row, I’m co-teaching a course called ‘The Informal Experience.’ It’s all about the learning that goes on in out-of-school
time programs and museum programs and class field trips. It’s a yearlong course paired with an internship in an informal education setting, and although I did not initiate the course, I’m now one of the coinstructors, and to me that’s huge. I love, love, love teaching.

Nancy Peter