published Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

Chattanooga after-school programs under the microscope for academic support

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    Julie Thomsen, director of partner relations at United Way
    Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Chattanooga after-school programs need to do a better job of encouraging academic work, helping with that work and involving youth in their decision-making, according to the first-ever analysis of local programs.

Thirteen nonprofit groups and agencies, including Chattanooga Parks and Recreation, Goodwill, YMCA and Boy and Girl Scouts, chose to be put under the microscope for the three-part analysis by the Michigan-based David P. Weikart Center.

"Chattanooga has never had any standards for after-school programs and ... (the programs) play a huge role in impacting youth," said Julie Thomsen, director of partner relations at United Way. "Children spend 60 percent of their time in the community."

At a time when many nonprofits have been cut to the bone because of a recession-triggered drop in contributions, training and data analysis have been hard to come by. And relying on volunteer staff can create inconsistency, officials said.

The pilot study and training opportunity, which has spanned more than 18 months and was funded in part by the Weikart Center, was a rare chance to examine what is going right and what is going wrong with outreach efforts, officials said.

"It didn't make me nervous because it is just a part ... of development," said Sue Ann Jackson, director of research and evaluation for the Girl Scout Council of the Southern Appalachians, which covers the Chattanooga area. "I was really excited to go through this process and find ways that we can improve."

And with the city's emerging gang problems and continued inner-city violence, the effort is well timed, said Jonathan Gibbons, associate director of community impact for United Way.

More than a year ago, the process started with a workshop in which nonprofit and agency workers were trained to self-examine and collect data. Those writeups and data were sent to the Weikart Center and reviewed. The findings were presented to each nonprofit and agency, and this week the groups are meeting about how to accomplish what the reports say needs to be done.

An added benefit will be great collaboration, Gibbons said.

"Whenever you are able to convene people in the same work, people naturally look for ways to streamline," he said.

The Girl Scout Council is already working toward its three improvement goals: to create a more supportive environment, to facilitate interactions between girls and to foster a girl-led environment. The council created packets for volunteers to guide them, and Jackson said she expects their next analysis to show change for the better.

Contact staff writer Joan Garrett at jgarrett@times freepress.com or 423-757-6601. Follow her on Twitter at @JoanGarrettCTFP.

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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