Building Trust in Schools and OST Programs

Three out-of-school time partners discuss how they're building trust overcoming challenges, strengthen culture and empowering their partners through SEL.

Aperture Education had the chance to connect with three individuals from two of our out-of-school time (OST) partners, Dallas Afterschool (DAS) and Denver Afterschool Alliance (DAA). Learn more about how they are overcoming challenges related to the pandemic, how they are empowering their partners through social and emotional learning (SEL), and how they are using the same tactics to strengthen their internal cultures.

John Lewis, Quality Counts Network Lead, Denver Afterschool Alliance

John focuses on design and implementation systems of professional learning and continuous quality improvement for after school providers in the city and county of Denver. In this role, John supports more than 17 organizations operating at over 100 sites in developing the instructional quality of their after-school programs. He’s been working in the after-school arena for more than 15 years. Before his work as a manager for OST programs, he worked as a substitute teacher for Denver Public Schools (DPS), an English teacher for Shane English School in Taipei, Taiwan, a mental health worker, and a site director for the Boys and Girls Club for Metro Denver.

Vanessa Stafford, Project Manager, Dallas Afterschool

Vanessa is an experienced researcher with a demonstrated history working within the nonprofit organization management industry using her strong research skills, professional sales, databases, and nonprofit management experiences. She currently serves as Dallas Afterschool’s project manager; in this role she administers and cultivates the SEL rating system for the Dallas Afterschool’s partners. Vanessa is also responsible for managing and launching the shared services staff project and literacy tutoring program. Before joining Dallas Afterschool, Vanessa worked in corporate finance in both auto finance and film production finance. After eight years she decided to leave the finance world behind to immerse herself in her community through educational nonprofit work.

Shana Washington, Quality Advisor, Dallas Afterschool

Shana previously served as a youth violence prevention coordinator for the city of Milwaukee providing reform opportunities to youth within the juvenile justice system while leading the initiative for teen dating violence prevention. As quality advisor for Dallas Afterschool, she assists organizations with implementing best practices for quality programs. She serves as a board member for Black Child Development Institute and as board president of Poetics Youth Organization. She is also the founder of Social Butterfly Inc.

What uncharacteristic challenges has your organization faced recently?

Vanessa: Well, I want to mention that DAS is not a direct provider of after-school programs, we are a resource for our partners in Dallas and outside of Dallas. We serve as a backbone agency to connect them to their needs, even needs outside of education.

I think we’d all say that 2020 is a year we’d want to forget, but I think we also had a lot of growth within DAS. Before the pandemic we had created a platform, DAS360° (, which is an online community, as an added resource. We had to get that going and launch it during quarantine.

Although education is always important, with these times in the pandemic we realized the discrepancies of those of our friends and family who may be under-resourced. We always want to provide resources regarding SEL and quality coaching, but we also had to ask, “What are the actual livable resources our communities need?” We saw technology, internet, and food needs especially in the areas we service.

Shana: As a quality advisor I focused on working with our partners and recognizing the challenges they had during the pandemic. One of the biggest things was how to revamp their programs from in-person to virtual. When the new year came, it was how do we implement the in-person programming again.

In an industry with high turnover rates, fueled by the pandemic where some partners had a lot of individuals uncomfortable with going back into the workspace or other partners having to let people go because of funding issues. We really were trying to figure out how to provide quality programming with less staff. We also had to make sure everyone was following CDC guidelines, implementing those guidelines, enforcing policy changes, and working within our own capacity levels to make sure families knew their children and the staff are safe.

It was really challenging, but our partners are very resilient. With us having the opportunity to assist with resources and programming, we were able to do the same thing we always do which is meeting our partners’ needs to the best of our ability to service kids.

John: We are very much the same as DAS, we are a resource to the community, but do not provide any direct programming. Part of the nature of our makeup is being in partnership with DPS and the Denver Office of Children’s Affairs (OCA) of the City and County of Denver. The advantage is that we have leadership team members who wear multiple hats in both spaces. We can access resources from both spaces in a low-cost way to provide resources to those we serve. Our biggest challenge? A phrase I heard that really resonated was “hustling for relevance.” How do we fit in? What’s our role during the pandemic? We pivoted and partnered with the city in the programming space because DPS schools were closed and there was a need to provide services that they couldn’t. We leveraged our resources to build out toolkits ( and really leaned into what we do best historically — listening to what our partners needed and how we could best support them in that.

How did your stakeholders help you overcome adversity, COVID, and the overarching changes you made?

Vanessa: Resilience. A lot of our nonprofit OST programs are those people that provide for our community outside of these changes. When everything hit, it was honorable to see how our partners said, “We can’t do what we typically do with DAS, but we really need assistance.” They were transparent and shared that openly with us. At least for someone like me who isn’t as involved in programming, I really admired that transparency and that moment of, “I’m not sure which way to go.” At the end of the day, it was always how do we take the children that you serve, what will this look like, how do we move forward? I always knew that we had great partners, but we saw so much humanity. What I love so much about our stakeholders, and not only them, but our students, is their resiliency. They got innovative. They redesigned programs to be limited to follow CDC capacity guidelines. Our partners said, “We can’t take all 50, but we can do our best to have 15 students all six feet apart.” Those children that really needed it showed up.

Shana: Speaking from a staff perspective, we, too, had to pivot and take on a lot of different challenges. We were able to show up and be the support system our partners needed. I think the relationships that we have with our partners speaks volumes because they trusted us enough to be vulnerable. They shared their concerns and issues they were struggling with. Knowing we built that trust to provide quality support really speaks volumes about us and our organization.

John: The power of relationships, the trust built, having that foundation, gosh if that wasn’t there, I don’t even know what would have happened going into the pandemic. Vanessa was speaking about the partners; they were doing everything. Something we worked on was being effective advocates for OST locally and nationally. This was an opportunity for us to reengage with partners, identify the needs they had, but also celebrate what they were doing. I mean stepping in and providing virtual programming, in person learning, then going back to virtual learning, providing remote support, doing small mentorship groups, it’s all a lot. We had some partners like Girls Inc. sending out free subscription boxes, there were just so many unbelievably cool things that our partners did to reach students.

This past year we ended up spending a lot of time just pulling together that information into a larger report, the “Unseen Essential Industry.” We wanted to show that OST employees were essential workers. We’re hoping to push our city, and our nation, in that direction so that they understand that afterschool time is not an afterthought. OST really stepped up in this time to provide opportunities for families that couldn’t stay home.

How do you make sure stakeholders are working toward the same vision and goals as your organization?

John: Our primary audience is partners, program-deliverers. Historically, we make sure we’re all on the same page through having some quality standards in place. From the formation of DAA, there was a desire to talk about quality and be engaged in quality programming. We know afterschool programs matter so how do we talk about them, measure them, and improve the quality of our programming?

That led us to selecting tools for our community that really met and matched the definition of “quality” in Denver. The Youth Program Quality Assessment (YPQA) and Survey of Academic and Youth Outcomes for Staff (SAYO-S&Y) are two of those. We use the DESSA as staff measurement of youth behaviors. We were also a part of the Wallace Foundation’s six-year social and emotional learning initiative that has pushed us to identify definitions around SEL competencies, similar to CASEL definitions.

Having alignment on why SEL matters, incorporating it into professional development, and engaging in dialogue to explore how it connects to what our organization does day-in-and-day-out is important.

Shana: As a quality advisor we focus on the ratings with the DESSA. We have raters go into their sites or complete virtual observations to see where students are and where they need to be. Then, we coach them to get from A-Z. Having those standards to meet is helpful so that there’s no gray area, it’s black-and-white, here’s where students are, here’s where they should be, and then working to set SMART goals to help them get there.

Vanessa: A keyword for 2020-2021 is pivot. We created our online assessment tool with Andrea Devora, our wonderful lead assessor. She put a lot of effort into how we can assist those who are intrigued with how we’re doing virtually. I have to say I absolutely love the three different options within the DESSA. Especially the DESSA-mini in a virtual setting, that’s really helped measure how our students are doing.

The other thing we’re really good at is check-ins with our partners and within our organization. Making sure we look within our organization. We’ve created culture committees because if we don’t practice what we preach, what’s the point? We want to ensure that within our student outcomes program we can utilize that data for their benefit. Not only for the students, which is first and foremost, but also because we work primarily with nonprofits who deal with grants and measuring that success. I’m proud of our partners who take advantage of asking for more SEL funds and resources because they see these systems improving outcomes for students.

What are some new SEL initiatives you’re working on?

Shana: We’re doing a lot in DAS. We already have an SEL cohort that we’ve offered. We’ve recently made it an SEL 2.0 which is for leadership like executive directors and program directors. We’re really focusing on self-care and how to implement SEL practices within staff meetings because it is important to live by example. The best way to demonstrate to our kiddos that we know SEL is to practice it and model it ourselves. We also recently started a blog that’s a part of our DAS360° which is available to all partners for monthly motivation.

We’re really making sure SEL is a priority. We’re focusing on cultural competency when we talk about SEL and emphasizing the importance of that component. Because we serve students in different communities, we want to make sure we’re being culturally relevant with the students we serve.

Vanessa: My main focus currently is trauma. I think this is a focus for a lot of our friends across the nation because everyone, even Texas, specifically Dallas, has gone through a lot. We’ve gone through tornados that shut down our schools and partner schools, we went through winter storms, we went through the pandemic. All of this has been on-going, uncontrollable trauma for our students.

Tatiana Carter from Aperture sat down with my supervisor, Lauren Ammons (Director of Research & Evaluation), to talk with her as we plan to go into a “normal” school year and what that even looks like. They discussed how to prepare our OST staff to address or deescalate student feelings through SEL. I very much appreciate utilizing the DESSA tools to build a larger trauma curriculum and using Aperture’s strategies to focus on how to get our children back into stability.

John: There’s that propensity around big organizations and education to view everything as quantity over quality. I can see it within my own organization — people need time to adjust, students need time to adjust to the whirlwind of events that have happened. We are in a similar position of an SEL 2.0, we’re wrapping up our social and emotional learning initiative partnership with the Wallace Foundation where we had six pilot sites partnered with Denver Public Schools’ day schools to provide SEL support from the time students got on the bus to the time they got home from their OST program.

I was a part of coordinating supports for the Champion SEL program we ran for the past two years. That program focused intentionally on building SEL-enriched programs and measuring impacts through DESSA and other tools. We’re going to expand that into a new cohort and are inviting new sites in to expand access to our SEL tools and resources. Another part of our focus is SEL within organizational leadership and shaping culture around SEL. Adults can say, “do SEL kids,” or they can model it, live it, and do it alongside their students. That’s what we feel organizations should be doing — living, practicing, and developing their own competencies. We’re digging into curriculum and curriculum supports from Aperture and partnering with another local organization to help develop an SEL pipeline for partners to get involved with.

How are you training staff so they’re comfortable modeling SEL to their students?

John: We’ve worked with partners to build skills around three signature practices: a welcoming ritual, engaging practices, and optimistic closure. It’s a nice structure that sets a foundation for SEL. We’ve looked at some of the SEL tools like the SELPQA that have pushed partners to practice. It’s not a terribly comfortable thing to do right off the bat, but it illustrates the point that if it’s uncomfortable as a staff team member to name the emotion you’re feeling, what caused that emotion, why you’re feeling it, its intensity, it makes it a little bit easier to understand how a young person may feel doing it in a room of kids they may not know. Engaging staff in SEL practices encourages a mindful approach of doing it alongside students and experiencing it.

Vanessa: I think from a DAS organizational standpoint we’ve been immersed in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Having been so immersed in that, we have grown together, learned to listen, and made sure our staff is okay and able to go out and assist our partners. Our leadership has been very cognizant of not only pandemic stressors, but racial triggers we have had experience this past year. Giving us that space has helped very much. It has taught me to ensure I’m giving our partners that space, too.

In my role in student outcomes, being able to use the DESSA to do remote ratings has been so helpful. It’s showed that it’s okay to adjust how things are normally run. Those who were able to hop on a Zoom to complete the DESSA-mini could prepare for students’ needs as they transitioned out of remote learning into in-person learning. That emphasis on engagement, that understanding, is very, very key. We talk about vulnerability a lot, but empathy will have you changing your whole workload.

Shana: We’ve encouraged partners to implement the three signature practices that John mentioned in staff meetings. I really focus on teaching the self-care component. One thing we did in our cohort is give examples of creating self-care plans. We wanted leadership to do it first to encourage open communication with staff, so they feel comfortable sharing what their plans look like. It was also to encourage leadership and staff to hold each other accountable for their self-care plans.

There are five aspects of self-care: physical, emotional, professional, social, and spiritual. Asking questions like how you are doing with those aspects, how many of those aspects have you reached this week, and what is holding you back? Building those relationships so staff come to you when they feel like they aren’t taking care of themselves is leadership leading by example.

What is your personal “why?” that connects to the overall mission?

Shana: I grew up as a Club kid, I went to the Boys and Girls Club from five until I graduated high school. It was a safe haven for me, I learned and grew so much from the Club. There are friendships that I still have today, mentors that I gained in that space. I just felt like I wanted to be what was needed. I know especially being where I’m from, our community, our children were crying, crying for the need and help. There are so many people that point fingers and shake their heads at our young people and there needs to be more asking, “How can we help, how can we support, how can we be there?” We don’t know every child’s backstory so when they’re in after-school time that may be their only safe space. It’s important to see how important your role is because they may not see it anywhere else. I had that and it’s important for me to be that person now. As a quality advisor I have the chance to help other organizations offer equality on all levels.

John: DAA’s mission is to increase access to high quality programs across the city and county of Denver. That’s what truly drives us and guides us. Every kid deserves access to equitable programs. I love getting to do the work that I do because there is so much opportunity in OST. There is so much opportunity to provide rich, developmental SEL opportunities for young people, power to build authentic, real relationships with kids, families, and communities, its unparalleled. OST is an untapped resource that provides incredible services to communities around the nation. Being around that, when these programs are more intentional, skillsets are developed across teams, there’s thoughtfulness and intentionality, it just boosts quality and impact. This opportunity to do things a little different has led to great impacts.

Vanessa: My why is truly personal. The students in the communities we serve come from broad, varying demographics. Culturally as someone who identifies as Afro-Latina, and grew up with a similar background as Shana, being a Club kid, and dealing with my own personal childhood trauma as of late, has got me really devoted more so than ever in ensuring that our children see me and understand that we’re here for support. Reassuring students it’s okay to feel what they’re feeling. I always want them to feel confident and empowered to talk about their feelings and what they’re going through. I see myself in each of the students we serve.

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