When does a new year begin? That is a complex question for community education and after school leaders. For most programs, their new fiscal year arrived with fireworks and barbeques in July. Nationwide, a new school year and new after school programs launched a few months later, near Labor Day.

Now that fall programs are humming, this time of year still presents the perfect opportunity to step back, reflect and wonder what the new year, 2023, will bring.

At Eleyo, we are using this opportunity to check-in. We wanted to learn and understand what was on the mind of after school and community education professionals, so we sat down and listened. Specifically, we spent time with four experienced and leading community education and after school program directors from across the country:

After many energizing interviews, discussions, and event panels with these outstanding leaders, we learned they are focused on three critical areas as they head into the new year, and we are going to dissect them throughout this resource:

  1. It’s time for a reset: Establishing a new baseline for you and your team
  2. Get back to thinking BIG: Creating big short- and long-term plans for your programs
  3. Nurturing the team: Producing engaging and sustainable opportunities for employees

Before we dive into these insights on the future of community education, we must look back to understand the significance of where the industry stands today.

Learning to dance in the rain

Two and a half years ago, COVID-19 flooded the after school learning community with new challenges. These challenges can be summarized by:

  • Lockdowns and the inability to operate business as usual
  • New protocols around health and safety added to the complexity of each day
  • Increase in the demand for flexibility, communications, and sacrifice from program coordinators and leaders
  • Decreases in enrollments, revenue, resources, community engagement, and morale

"We had seven years of growing our programs, and then to have it fall off the cliff in three months is very unsettling, especially when you were feeling proud and excited about the pace you were going. - Brian Siverson-Hall, Osseo Community Education, MN

Much of the time since March 2020 has been spent in survival mode, working tirelessly to keep programs afloat, adapt to restrictions, find staff, and communicate updates to communities needing after school programming.

When you are in survival mode, it is one day at a time, working to create short-term solutions to solve the latest challenge, only to replan and rebuild something similar a few weeks or months later. These newly built solutions came in all shapes and sizes for after school leaders.

“Before the pandemic, our district didn’t look at us as much to help out with students through enrichment opportunities. Once Covid hit, they leaned on us a lot.” - Brian Puffer, Saline Community Education, MI

These past few years have brought new requirements and expectations, from creating emergency child care, moving enrichment programs outside, and adding new programming categories to keep business afloat. Or, in some unfortunate cases, shut programs down.

“We shifted our model to be more intentional about what we do with kids during that time and provide rich after school programming that includes enrichment, connections, social-emotional learning, and academic support for all families and all students who want that — whether they can afford it on their own or not.” - Dr. Carin Fractor, Saugus Union School District, CA

It's Time to Hit Reset

As we spent the past year learning from programs nationwide, we started to sense some changes. Changes in their tone of voice, how they consume and engage with resources, and how they network. We decided to dig in.

We asked around the industry about this new energy and optimism, and we wondered, “why now?” Across every response were the exact two words, “It’s time.”

But what does that mean? It’s time means …

Child care programming and attendance have bounced back, if not all of the way, part of the way … and child care staffing is beginning to show signs of catching up.

Enrichment and recreation offerings are more robust and in demand than ever before.

Most teams are rebuilding, and all industry professionals are retooled after new experiences, challenges, and opportunities.

Team morale is rising.

Your community is ready to respond to all you do due to your programs' impact on them.

Your district and partners have never been more confident in the path you can forge for them.

It’s time. It’s time to launch toward new goals and take your team to new heights. And the first step in doing so is taking a moment, alongside your team, to reset.

“We have support from the community and constant requests for more.” - Jill Korsok, Orange Community Education, OH

A simple word, difficult to act on

Reset. It’s a simple word but is loaded in this context. After two and a half years of navigating the pandemic, hitting the reset button is hard, but the work is important. Before planning for the future, we must assess the current nature and environment of our team, programs, and community.

“What’s your environmental scan? What’s your current reality, and then, knowing your current reality, where is your ideal reality?” Brian Siverson-Hall

As you reset, take an environmental scan with your team. This is a great off-site activity opportunity. Find a place and time with your team conducive to a fresh perspective. As you analyze with your team, we have identified three key areas to evaluate:

New business outcomes

Regardless of the financial structure of your programs, you’ve become accustomed to setting financial or performance goals — goals you became used to hitting year after year.  It is essential, moving forward, to reevaluate your programs' potential to develop realistic goals. Make sure you, your team, and your partners understand these new expectations and are excited about them. Working towards outdated goals can harm team morale, strategic planning, and decision-making.

New community expectations

Your community has high expectations for the programming you deliver. How has it evolved since 2019? If you are unsure, start by analyzing which new segments of your community you’ve engaged or how the behaviors of your top customers have changed. Regardless of the specific answer for your programs, it is likely that the community you serve thinks differently of you now, and we are confident it is for the better. Understanding this evolution is key to moving forward.

New team and personnel management responsibilities

Finally, and most importantly, your team has changed (we dive deeper into this in the last section — you don’t want to miss it).

It’s very likely that you, unfortunately, had to let go of some excellent staff over the past three years. However, your remaining team’s experiences have evolved their capacity and capability to impact your programs and community. As you perceive where your team stands today, consider the following:

  • How has my team evolved over the last few years?
  • What new skill sets have they developed?
  • How has the way they work changed?
  • How has their appetite for growth changed?

“I have worked in this role for 18 years, but it was not until COVID-19 that I learned the power of our impact on families. We are using that as our focus moving forward. What can we do to sustain that impact moving forward?” - Brian Puffer

Once you take the time and energy (it takes a lot of both) to facilitate an environmental scan of your programs, your community, and your teams, it is time to take the first action toward the future of your programs. It all starts with a mindset.

Developing Your Mindset in the New Year

Mindset matters. It always matters, but as your program turns a corner and launches into the future, you and your team must be in the right mindset.

Everyone is unique in their approach, and it naturally makes teams balanced and well-rounded and makes collaboration and cooperation possible. However, it is important to establish a collective growth mindset when working towards goals and the future.

What makes a growth mindset different from any regular old mindset? According to the psychologist who coined the term, Carol Dweck, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work — brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and resilience essential for great accomplishment.”

Evolving into a growth mindset is challenging, but it is a challenge each of us overcame throughout the pandemic. Disruptive, stressful experiences are often opportunities to cultivate a growth mindset.

“On average, my full-time staff has been here about 13 years, and so if you’ve been in a spot for a long time, you’re used to doing something a certain way. We want to challenge ourselves to look at our departments in a different way and also focus on the students — how can we have a positive impact on their life before and after school.” - Brian Puffer

What is important, as you guide your team into the future, is that you can maintain this mindset of adaptation, experimentation, and resilience you cultivated. It will come in handy.

Building Big Plans and Sticking To Them

No two strategic plans are alike. Not everyone even calls them strategic plans. Regardless of how you refer to them, it is important to have long-term goals that guide your team's and programs' foundational growth and movements.

You likely had strategic plans laid to the wayside during the pandemic. Maybe they expired or became irrelevant, or your team lost the necessary bandwidth to adhere to them. If you did stick to and see strategic plans through — that’s amazing!

But as we laid out, there is no better time to build new plans than now, with your new mindset and dynamic team. At its core, strategic planning is about surveying the current environment, studying how it came to be, and using that to best predict where it is going. The instability of the past two years has made that analysis very hard. However, the opportunity to plan has returned as the world settles in. The hardest part of a strategic plan is knowing where to start. A great place is to ask your team this question: What are we building?

“The important part isn’t listing all the things we’re going to do — it’s here’s our goal, here’s the outcome we want, and here are the things that we believe we need to do to get to that outcome.” - Brian Siverson-Hall

Over the past few months, we’ve pulled popular strategic planning themes from our conversations with customers, conferences, and other industry resources for you and your team to consider.

  • Marketing and Advocacy: Developing an encompassing program brand that connects your community from one program to the next.
  • Facilities: Building plans to create more space for more programming across the entire community.
  • Partnerships: Creating champions for programs across local organizations, starting with school districts and vendor networks.

In our discussion with Brian Siverson-Hall, he broke down three specific examples of how having internal champions is currently the key to foundational growth at Osseo:

  1. Creating ambassadors of teachers and principals is a leading growth driver for filling before and after school enrichment programs.
  2. As the district as a whole is undergoing a facilities assessment, having school leaders who have community education needs top of mind will lead to community education having more access to space and resources long into the future.
  3. Osseo Area Schools has over 280 job openings. Community education can piggyback their job opportunities alongside the district’s offerings to create more full-time positions, which are currently highly sought after. As a result, Brian and his team are receiving applicant referrals from within their district as district hiring managers find talent willing to work before and after school programs to hit full-time hours.

"It makes sense when a community ed staff person is an ambassador for community ed. But when a site principal is an ambassador, that speaks even louder. When I’ve got other internal people who are being an ambassador, including finding me staff, that’s a huge win.” - Brian Siverson-Hall

Food 4 thought: All organizations have become start-ups
Since the pandemic, programs have seen a shift in operations: experimenting daily with new programming, seeking user feedback in real-time to guide your next solution, employees wearing new and multiple hats, and developing an armoire of skills. How can your team's start-up DNA increase the opportunity within your next strategic plan?

Last summer, we offered Super Summer Scholars and identified kids that were typically doing good in school, but when Covid hit, they encountered challenges. So we’re trying to stay on top of that and seek out new opportunities to impact — and are asking ourselves, what else can we do moving forward.” - Brian Puffer

Getting started on strategic planning

Jill Korsok and her team began the conversation on a new strategic plan in early 2018, but the pandemic hit just as they were about to start creating it. After much patience, Jill has recently selected The Impact Group to help them navigate an ambitious strategic plan focusing on increasing their facilities to absorb program growth potential, among other growth initiatives.

"The myth of a strategic plan is that you go out, get the data, and it sits there, and nobody does anything with it. As part of The Impact Group’s proposal, they offer six-month check-ins for three years. It’s nice if you have staffing issues to get extra resources to manage the project, and it assures that you’re getting your money’s worth.” Jill Korsok

To help plant a few more seeds, here are some strategic plan anecdotes from around the industry as districts prepare to map out their future:

  • Saline Area Schools just passed a school bond that will add new facilities at over six district buildings. This new capacity will change the future of Saline Community Education and enable Brian and his team to build a plan to maximize the new facilities through enrichment programming.
  • At Saugus Union School District, before and after school programs have historically operated site-by-site, each adhering to the Quality Standards for Expanded Learning in California. Heading into the new year, Dr. Carin Fractor and her team are planning to bring each site under a singular programming and branding umbrella to drive community and district awareness and program growth.
  • Osseo Area Schools recently passed a new strategic plan, guiding the community education team as they build theirs. Brian and his team have committed to 4-6 half-day retreats this year for strategic planning and professional development. Additionally, he has tasked all eight program coordinators with building three-year operational plans. These plans will break down their department’s learning, implementation, and everyday work as they execute on making changes.

“Those staff members who used to work for us in an older model, it’s a big shift for them, and now we’re moving toward a district-wide program. I will reach out to them and seek feedback about what is happening and gather great success stories. They love to share what they’re doing and what kids are saying.” - Dr. Carin Fractor

Empowering Your Team Along the Journey

“There is not a lot of tolerance left for more stress.” Jill Korsok

The pressures of the pandemic in the workplace have altered the way people work and get things done:

  • Solving challenges one day at a time with little long-term planning
  • Evolving or unpredictable goals, metrics, and expectations
  • Decreases in professional development opportunities and resources, strategy sessions, and designated time for planning for the future
  • Continual uncertainty about the future of their role and programs

These experiences have impacted how we work, perceive our responsibilities, and think about our positions long-term. As after school leaders plan for the future and look ahead, it is crucial to understand that it is more than just revenue that has been impacted. Considering this, what does your team need from you in 2023?

Nurturing and growing your team

As you sit down with your team and build out strategic plans and the future of your program, it is important to consider each of their roles in helping execute. Strategic plans will ask a lot of them, and it is crucial to have checkpoints and guides in place to help them accomplish this. After all, they will be the ones who make it happen. But as we discussed, employees have been through a lot. They have been spread thin and tested but remain hopeful that the new year can bring new energy and excitement. It’s your role to keep them energized and excited throughout the year.

As a result, 2023 will bring new challenges to people management. But, like with all challenges, there is opportunity. As after school leaders school ahead, three key focus areas emerge when it comes to people management:

Providing clarity and certainty

After years without, employees long for clarity and certainty in their roles. Specifically, they seek clarity in their goals and objectives beyond the next few weeks. Using your strategic plan to map out plans and goals for each employee is essential. Having clarity and focus is not only good for production, but it is also good for retention.

“It will give our staff a clearer direction. Moving resources to find growth opportunities.” - Jill Korsok

Impact — socially and beyond

Regardless of industry, employees are more in touch with the social impact of their role and organization. Our industry is no different. Creating socially responsible plans for your programs comes naturally, so lean into this as you build them out! It will benefit not only your community but your team as well.

If you are hoping to increase the equity of your programming impact and looking for guidance, engaging with local or state organizations and programs similar in scope to yours is a great place to start. This is top of mind for programs nationwide.

But in addition to the social impact, employees want to feel they are making a personal difference. Beyond putting them in spots to make a difference, it is more important than ever to celebrate wins of all shapes and sizes and help them visualize their impact.

My assistant director and I have been very intentional about letting their voice be heard because it’s isolating when they’re at the site. We want to showcase the work they’re doing and validate them.” - Dr. Carin Fractor

Engagement — quality over quantity

Across the country, there has been a variance in working remotely in the after school industry. As employers and after school leaders turn towards 2023, the focus is less on remote work and more on creating high-quality in-person work experiences. Whether that looks like creating thoughtful meeting structures, setting up off-site planning workshops, or other in-person social events, there needs to be an emphasis on increasing employee engagement and morale through collaboration and interaction.

“We are taking the time to invest in ourselves and our leadership capacity. It will take time and intentionality to be together to change our mindset.” - Brian Siverson-Hall

Here's to 2023

Resetting, shifting your mindset, creating and executing strategic plans, and nurturing amazing teams. We know this is a lot easier to put into writing than execute day in and day out. We know it will take time, and there will be barriers and pushback. But we also know that no one is more capable of leading your programs toward a bright future than you.

So make that big idea happen. Try that new program you have been waiting to test out. Explore that new community partnership. Launch that new marketing campaign. It’s time.

We can’t wait to see all that you do in 2023 … it’s going to be a great year.