New leader of the Ohio Afterschool Network talks plans, priorities, and STEM

The challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic for everyone involved in traditional PreK-12 schooling in Ohio – including administrators, teachers, students and parents – have been well-documented in the news media. But what about those who run afterschool programs? How have these educators fared during the past 10 months? Some have considered this difficult period as an opportunity for change and growth, says Michele Ritchlin. The recently appointed executive director of the Ohio Afterschool Network, which is based in Delaware, says her organization continues to reach out to students and their families to provide many kinds of assistance. To find out more, we posed some questions to Ritchlin, who told us about her organization and its recent efforts:

Q: Tell us about your background in education prior to your appointment as executive director of the Ohio Afterschool Network.

michele ritchlinA: I began working in afterschool in 2008 for the West Afterschool Center in Lancaster, Ohio. I started as a part-time reading tutor. The next year, I was the director of the program. Then I was the director of three of our programs. In 2014, I was promoted to executive director of all the afterschool programs in Lancaster.

Q: Now tell us about the Ohio Afterschool Network – its mission and its membership. What does the network offer its members?

A: OAN supports quality out-of-school-time programs for youth in Ohio. Our members are out-of-school-time professionals throughout the state. They range from front-line workers to administrators, from newcomers just entering the field to seasoned professionals. Our members are also partner organizations that share a common goal: to improve the lives of children and families in Ohio.

I think the biggest benefit to our members is the collective voice we have and the platform OAN provides. OAN advocates for funding for out-of-school time at the federal and state levels. OAN partners with national organizations such as the National AfterSchool Association and the Afterschool Alliance to bring awareness to the field in the form of annual events such as Lights On Afterschool that engaged more than 1 million Americans in the fall.

We also advocate for increased pay and protections for the profession. Through a national initiative, we are asking that out-of-school-time and child-care professionals be considered for the first wave of the COVID-19 vaccination inoculation.

OAN also signed onto a letter in support of establishing a White House Office on Children and Youth that would bring sustained attention to research and policy recommendations, enhance alignment and coordination of federal programs and investments and, ultimately, set our country on a trajectory of well-being, prosperity and success for the future.

Q: What are your key priorities as executive director and how might the network evolve under your leadership?

A: A key priority is to procure state funding to support out-of-school-time programs for Ohio’s youth. This has been a priority of the network since its inception in 2003. OAN has great relationships and support throughout the state. I hope to utilize these relationships to engage local municipal leaders and legislators to recognize the positive impact afterschool and summer programs have on students, families and communities in Ohio.

Another priority is to provide quality programs for Ohio’s youth and families. Our Virtual Best Foot Forward Conference (Feb. 25-26, 2021) is a two-day conference with national presenters such as Chic Thompson and James Orrigo. We also hold quarterly meetings to update the field on state and national trends and policies and provide networking opportunities.

Q: Can you give us examples of some exemplary STEM-based afterschool programs in Ohio?

A: Because I started in October, I have not had the opportunity to visit any programs. I am looking forward to visiting a few that have been recommended to me such as the PAST Foundation based in Columbus. It is a wonderful example of a STEM-based afterschool program.

Also, there are loads of opportunities out there to get STEM into your curriculum. Several of our partners provide curriculum such as Million Girls Moonshot, NASA, ARISS, COSI and, of course, our favorite, OSLN.

There is a very cool STEM activity that a program in Lancaster did in 2018 in partnership with ARISS and NASA. Here are photos from the Space Station Contact. This was a yearlong planning and curriculum project that culminated in 20 students speaking to an astronaut aboard the International Space Station.

Q: How can STEM teachers and afterschool program managers best work together toward their common goals of enriching students’ lives and furthering their academic progress?

A: There is so much potential in the relationship between school and afterschool. I like to remind teachers and administrators that, if we (afterschool) are doing our job, it makes their job easier.

I think aligning and connecting the school day to afterschool is a challenge we have always experienced. There is often a lack of systems in place to open up communication between the school day and afterschool.

Afterschool programs need to establish themselves as a necessary wraparound service for students, families and teachers. The afterschool staff members are often the only personal channel of information into the home. The frontline staff members speak with parents and caregivers every day when they pick up their students. This social contact is vital to provide a positive connection to school.

Technology is increasing the ease and efficiency of communication among teachers, students, afterschool staff members and caregivers. In Montgomery County, for instance, four districts have opted to use Learning Circle. This software provides critical information on student school performance as well as programs and interventions received from out-of-school providers. Learning Circle aligns in-school and out-of-school data to help community agencies such as afterschool programs individualize their programs to better meet student needs.

Q: What kind of challenges has the pandemic posed to afterschool programs, and how have they overcome these challenges? What would you recommend to program managers as they continue to struggle with COVID-related issues?

A: Of course, the pandemic has posed great challenges to everyone. Whether you are serving urban, suburban or rural students, lack of access to technology and the internet is a serious barrier.

According to the Ohio Department of Education, 360 school districts in the state are teaching either in a hybrid or fully remote model. Keeping kids engaged in this environment is difficult, to say the least. In southeastern Ohio, students have access to devices and hot spots, but several hot spots do not work because of poor or no cell service. That means students are not engaged.

Afterschool has been doing its best to reach out to families and students however it can through Facebook groups, email, phone calls, texts and Zoom. We are making sure people are connected to one another in the most basic sense. We call to check on them and let them know we are here and we care. Several afterschool programs made weekly deliveries to doorsteps with meals and care packages. That human connection got a lot of people through several days of the pandemic.

Afterschool has always been incredibly flexible, so when the pandemic hit in March, we knew we could rise to the challenge. Some people thought we should be shut down, but afterschool programs wouldn’t allow it. We used our collective voice to prove we were built for this opportunity to support our communities. As Lee Rubin is credited with saying, “Adversity is opportunity in disguise.”

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about your organization in particular or afterschool programs in general?

A: I appreciate this platform to discuss the power of afterschool and the amazing professionals that breathe life into the field every day. AFTERSCHOOL ROCKS!


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