The 3 W’s of a Citywide Afterschool System: Why, Who, and Where

As a municipal leader, you may be familiar with the programs available at local recreation centers, a YMCA, or Boys & Girls club, but you may not know if the most vulnerable children and youth in your city have a safe place to go after school.

The Wallace Foundation report, Governance Structures for City Afterschool Systems: Three Models, highlights the growing number of cities that have created citywide afterschool systems including, Baltimore; Boston; Denver; Fort Worth, Texas; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Jacksonville, Florida; Louisville, Kentucky; Nashville, Tennessee; New York; Philadelphia; Providence, Rhode Island; Saint Paul, Minnesota; Oakland, California; Omaha, Nebraska; and Palm Beach County, Florida.

Why do cities build such systems?

A citywide afterschool system is a coordinated effort with strong cross-sector leadership that maps a city’s afterschool program locations overlaid with poverty and crime data to determine neighborhoods of greatest need and reduce duplication, trains afterschool providers to improve program quality, and creates a data system to measure the impact of the programs collectively across the community. The goal is to get more young people in good programs.

National data show that for every child in a program, two children are waiting to get in. In rural communities, it’s a ratio of three to one. City leaders understand that afterschool programs contribute to public safety, keep kids active, healthy, engaged in learning, expose youth to new careers and skills to prepare them for the workforce, and help working families have peace of mind.

Who coordinates the system?

The key to a system’s success is the coordination and leadership behind it. Coordination includes working with multiple stakeholders including mayors, school district superintendents, afterschool providers, private funders, city agencies, faith-based institutions and businesses toward a common set of goals. The person or organization with this role is called the coordinating entity or the intermediary.

Where should coordinating entities “live”?

Building upon NLC’s long history of helping cities coordinate programs to create their own afterschool systems, NLC issued its 2011 report, Municipal Leadership for Afterschool: Citywide Systems Spreading Across the Country, which documented 27 cities most advanced in system-building efforts.

The Wallace Foundation invested in nine of these cities to strengthen their afterschool systems with a focus on improving the quality of programs and creating data management information systems to measure impact. The cities found that determining the best home for their coordinating entity was a driver for several important aspects of governance, including leadership, staffing, decision-making, and how the work is funded over time.

Three models of afterschool system governance emerged:

Public Agency

In the public agency model, the organizational home for the coordinating entity may be the mayor’s office, school district, or another city agency. Grand Rapids, Oakland, Nashville, New York, Philadelphia, and Jacksonville use the public agency model.

Municipal leaders who use this model can attract partners by using their bully pulpit to forge relationships, sustain infrastructure and make increased city investments.


In cities that use network models, a city’s afterschool system is housed among several organizations that share management and oversight, making it so no one individual or organization can sway any decision. Denver, Louisville, Omaha, and Saint Paul use the network model. However, the power, influence, and leadership of the mayor in each of these cities was significant and has led to their systems’ success.


The non-profit model can look different in each city. In this model, the coordinating entity either resides within the non-profit designated to carry out the operations, staffing and additional functions of the city afterschool system or it can create its own non-profit organization focused solely on managing the system.  Baltimore, Boston, Fort Worth, Providence, and Palm Beach County use the non-profit model.

Getting it Right

If your municipality is considering creating an afterschool system, remember that finding the right afterschool system home is not the same for every city. Municipal leaders need to consider the context—operational cost, staff capacity, management, oversight, the culture of the partnering organizations, and how they can accomplish a common goal. Determining which organization(s) will serve as the coordinating entity and where it will be housed requires clear responsibilities for everyone involved.

Finally, expect and embrace change. Of the 15 cities reviewed in Governance Structures for City Afterschool Systems: Three Models, nearly half changed their organizational home at some point. The system’s structure may not work after some time or maybe better sustained through a mayoral transition if it is housed outside of city government. It is okay to revisit the plan and consider other, more effective options.

For more resources visit the Wallace Foundation’s Knowledge Center or contact NLC staff, Bela Shah Spooner or Gislene Tasayco, with questions.

About the Authors:

Bela Shah Spooner is the Manager of Expanded Learning at the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.

Gislene Tasayco is the senior associate for NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families Education and Expanded Learning team.