Leadership Counts: Professional Development Strengthens OST Programs

October 6, 2021

PlaceholderResearchNational Afterschool Matters Fellow Josh Gillman takes a look at the importance of leadership development in building a strong out-of-school time field.


Decades of research focused on the engagement, effectiveness, and success of work teams across myriad industries has concluded that the single biggest indicator of a team’s success is the manager (Clifton, Harper, & Harter, 2019). Success, even within a company or agency, varies greatly depending on each team’s manager. Managers – through their strengths, their own engagement, and how they work with their teams every day – account for 70% of the variance in team engagement (Clifton, Harper, & Harter, 2019). Across industries, engaged teams led by effective leaders are the most likely to achieve their desired outcomes.


Research in the out-of-school time (OST) field confirms the connection between staff quality and positive youth outcomes (Starr & Gannett, 2018). Effective leadership is especially critical at this point in the history of OST due to the increased demand for services, increasing complexity of the work, and the need for a better understanding of how implementation impacts program outcomes (Fowlkes & McWhorter, 2018). Strong leaders are central to building strong organizations (and programs), especially those operating in resource-scarce environments. The increasing expectation that OST will support youth towards achieving challenging academic and nonacademic outcomes, particularly disadvantaged youth, makes improving staff quality more important than ever. The nurturing of strong site leaders plays a key role.


While other sectors and professions have been successful in identifying strategies that are effective in preparing and supporting leaders, the field of OST has struggled to create a coherent strategy to form a pipeline from staff to leader, resulting in frequent staff turnover that has negative financial and programmatic impact on organizations (Warner, Ham & Fenton, 2018). In fact, leadership training and development is often an overlooked and underemphasized component of OST program development. OST programs may typically offer their staff an opportunity to attend a conference or workshop, but frequently the content fails to build upon a recognized body of knowledge or set of competencies. Clearly, a more coordinated, systemic approach is needed (Vandell & Lao, 2016) to engage potential site leaders in training and development. Most of the professional development (PD) and training for the OST sector focuses on youth development concepts and instructional practices targeted toward direct care professionals and/or point-of-service concepts with limited opportunities for leadership development.


In recent years, the OST field has worked to develop core competencies for OST staff at different positional levels, including competencies for site leaders. This work is only the beginning. Without a consistent and coherent set of expectations about the core competencies that site leaders need, professional development is haphazard and fragmented (Vandell & Lao, 2016). While there is certainly value in developing competency statements for all positions, they alone are often not enough to create change. While management and youth development competencies are critical elements in building capabilities of human capital in the OST space, they are often under-supported and underappreciated in this sector (Fowlkes & McWhorter, 2018). Additionally, little attention has been paid to the format of in-service PD – that is, how it is designed and delivered to staff. There have only been a few studies of OST PD programs designed with intentional pedagogical theories that engage participants in constructivist learning, leadership development, and inquiry (Hill, Connolly, Akiva & McNamara, 2018).


The OST field needs professional development that not only teaches competencies but enables and helps staff to grow as professionals and thought leaders (Hill, Connolly, Akiva & McNamara, 2018). The OST field may benefit from the emphasis K-12 education has put on developing leadership in principals. The role of site leader is comparable in complexity and scope to school principals. The Wallace Foundation has supported research and drawn the noteworthy conclusion that leadership in K-12 education is a primary driver of student and school success, adding that every school needs to be provided with leaders who have the necessary preparation to help all children succeed as learners. It is the principal, more than anyone else, who can ensure that excellent teaching and learning are a part of every classroom (Mitgang, 2012).


Often site leaders are chosen because they have demonstrated excellence in a direct care role or arrive in the OST field with administration experience from another social service sector. But the challenges of site leaders are unique and should be treated as such through training and development. Site leaders need to be much more than competent facilities and admin managers. Just like principals, these are professionals who can work to improve the organization, develop norms and structures that support high-quality teaching and learning, enhance the capacity of the faculty to meet the needs of students, and implement reform strategies that will improve student outcomes (Mitgang, 2012).


Today, the OST field sits on the foundation of ever-growing evidence of impact, growing systems of national and local OST networks, and ample research-based practices that further its development. There is opportunity to evolve further, by looking toward new developments and learning frames emerging in the national discourse, by questionning how the OST field positions itself relative to the education and workforce sectors, and by looking globally for points of intersection that could inform current issues in OST (Malone, 2018). Further research and understanding of what forms of PD have proven effective and what formats of learning help develop leaders’ skills and confidence is an important step in developing and supporting leaders in the OST space.


Josh Gillman is a National Afterschool Matters Fellow and Chief Operating Officer for Kids Can Community Center in Omaha, Nebraska.

Learn more about professional development opportunities offered by NIOST, including leadership training, and download Coaching for Quality in Out-of-School Time: A How To Guide.

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The Afterschool Matters Initiative is managed by the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, a program of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College

Georgia Hall, PhD, is Managing Editor of the Afterschool Matters Journal

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Wellesley College
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Wellesley, MA 02481-8203 USA


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