“If it weren’t for Hillary Salmons’s foresight, brilliance, and leadership, the out-of-school-time field would not be what it is today,” says Jessica Donner.
Donner should know. She heads Every Hour Counts, a coalition of citywide organizations working to increase access to high-quality learning opportunities for underserved students.
And who, exactly, is Hillary Salmons, apart from being one of the founders of Every Hour Counts? She is the now-retired founding executive director of the Providence After School Alliance (PASA), which since its inception in 2004 has provided Rhode Island’s capital city with a model system of afterschool programming–and inspired similar efforts in some 30 cities nationwide, according to one estimate.
PASA is an “out-of-school-time intermediary,” which means it coordinates the many moving parts and players (schools, program providers, nonprofits, and municipal agencies for starters) of a system to provide young people, whatever their family’s income, with plenty of opportunities after school and during the summer. Programs to stretch the mind and muscle range from coding to basketball, ceramics to horticulture, dance to volleyball.
PASA’s approach emphasizes high-quality programming, attention to the needs and wants of particular age groups, and collaboration among the various system partners.
PASA has historical ties to Wallace. In 2004, the foundation, as part of a major initiative to encourage the development of the then-novel idea of an afterschool system, awarded a $5 million grant to help establish PASA. This followed an earlier planning grant–and preceded additional support from the foundation over the years.
In Providence, youth faced significant economic and educational challenges. Then-Mayor David Cicilline, along with a team of local organizations and experts including Salmons, put their heads together to plan an afterschool enterprise that would meet the needs and interests of the young people in the city. What emerged with PASA was the AfterZone, designed specifically for Providence’s middle school students. Today, it serves 1,500 young people each year, giving them access to almost 100 programs in STEM, the arts, and sports, provided by 70 Providence organizations, teachers, and community-based educators. PASA has also expanded its efforts to include high school students.
Salmons retired in 2021 after 17 years heading PASA. It’s a measure of her impact that for an event several months ago to mark the milestone, every member of Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation–its two senators and two house members—prepared videos to thank her. Among them was Cicilline, who, after the early PASA years, went on to serve seven terms in Congress. (He recently stepped down.) Some 17,000 children have been served by PASA since it was founded, Cicilline remarked, praising Salmons’ “vision and fortitude” in helping to make that possible. Salmons, he added, had been “part of one of the things I’m most proud of from my days as mayor.”
We chatted with Salmons over Zoom recently to gain insights from her experiences working in afterschool, learn why systems are important, and find out more. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Wallace Foundation: PASA is one of the earliest afterschool systems. Can you talk about how it got started and how it grew?
Hillary Salmons: Credit is due to The Wallace Foundation for inviting our city to develop a plan, but I think the way they conceived of planning was very smart. It had to be a very broad-based, public-private collaborative effort. They hired a local group, Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, and they facilitated the planning process, which involved Mayor Cicilline, now head of the Rhode Island Foundation. He was critical to the planning process.
At the time, Wallace felt that public-private systems really needed to have a leader, and our mayor was 200 percent behind a youth development mindset and strategy. He was an education-minded leader. He totally embraced the planning process and participated in a great deal of it, which I think motivated community nonprofit organizations that were serving youth and the child policy community. It was really an all-inclusive effort. Hundreds of people came to planning meetings, and we divided up into all sorts of groups to work on determining what age group to work with and determine where our assets were. What could we build off of? What did we have in the nonprofit sector, in the public sector that could be better linked together, and what does it mean to build a system? Then also, what does quality mean?
There were a lot of young people involved in the planning process as well from the high school age group, and they were really saying that they would walk across the city for a really high-quality program, but they wouldn't cross the street for crap. Kids were really our customers. They were discerning about what was stimulating and what was not. The young people in middle school and high school were vociferous about that being an important element and agreed that high quality was the essential part of the systems-building effort. It took about six to nine months to plan.
Middle school was where the greatest deficits are. I think that that's often the case nationally.
When looking at the gaps of where the need was the greatest, we felt as if middle school was where the greatest deficits are. I think that that's often the case nationally. High school groups tend to be in arts organizations and sports organizations. There seems to be more in communities around high school because high school youth require it and demand it, but middle school in our city had a deficit. We didn't even have intramural sports. Other than 15 or 20 kids playing basketball, very few middle school students were engaged in afterschool learning and hands-on experiences. That was an area to start, and that's where we decided to focus.
That pre-planning, I think, is always key. There's no question, having a major financial investment from the private sector was huge. It immediately attracted a local private investor in Bank of America and soon to follow the Rhode Island Foundation.
WF: Can you talk a bit about why systems are important?
HS: It's mostly scale. The reality is the field is often a patchwork quilt of smaller projects, and it's easier for a little nonprofit to serve 150 kids, but to go to scale in a city requires systems. That is, I think, the biggest motivation. Also, systems force communities to think about: What are we doing for elementary, middle, and high school right up through the ladder versus assigning afterschool to just the childcare route.
When you're thinking with a youth development lens, you're thinking about: What does it take for a healthy development of young people, and where are the opportunity gaps for low-income kids? Oftentimes, middle class and upper middle-class kids have access because their parents can pay to play . If you're thinking systemically, you're thinking across age groups. You're thinking across resources and maximizing them. You're thinking about interfaces with the public systems, and then you're thinking about the class divide and the opportunity gap. Who's getting it and who's not?
I think when you're thinking systemically, you start thinking holistically about child development. What do young people need to thrive? The point of systems is to get you out of the patchwork like, "Well, we're doing a little apprenticeship program for high school age kids, and well, we got the childcare covered," versus what does the healthy development of our young people in the non-school hours look like?
WF: Were there a couple of key obstacles the organization needed to overcome, and, if so, how did you do that?
What do we do with $1 million in a town that doesn't have that much money? How do we maximize the investment?
HS: The biggest factor in a deficit-oriented economy is distrust because all the nonprofits are competing with each other [for funding]. Their first thought was: Who's going to get all this money when it comes to town? So, we had to think about how to build trust. You've got to really have everybody be involved in the planning process. I was a big believer in being transparent about budgets. We had to show people that we wanted to collectively invest the money as opposed to it being a competition where some nonprofits get money and some don’t. What do we do with $1 million in a town that doesn't have that much money? How do we maximize the investment , and how do you trust that this collective effort will leverage more money?
In the first few years, we helped groups that didn't get 21st Century Community Learning Centers money become partners on getting 21st CCLC money with us, and we helped scaffold them in managing a federal grant. The word got out that we were real allies and to be trusted.
WF: What advice might you give other cities that are considering building systems? What advice would you give to those that already have systems underway?
HS: What do you want to do if you want to replicate a PASA or a Boston After School & Beyond? I think the advice the Every Hour Counts community gives to cities is to try to get a major local philanthropy. I really do think a capital infusion is absolutely essential. If it isn't coming from a national foundation, it should come from a local corporation. Right away, whoever the intermediary is needs to start raising local dollars. Really thinking about mapping out what's the potential for collective public-private investment makes a lot of sense. Then who are the key players? It's important to get the nonprofit sector to really collectively advocate for it, to work with the state afterschool alliance, so there's an advocacy agenda.
I also think getting youth involved is absolutely key because they're the customer.
I also think getting youth involved is absolutely key because they’re the customer, and the customer can really speak their power to say what they want. I think youth leadership and youth voice are really important. The best place to really start in designing a system is to design it with some of the youth advocacy or youth development organizations because I think when investors–public or private–see their customer constituencies actively involved, it changes the political dynamic.
WF: Are there any other thoughts that you want to share about afterschool systems in the year 2023 and beyond?
The mayor of Providence became very connected to the mayor of Nashville. And then the Nashville mayor wanted to replicate what Providence was doing.
HS: I think how we got PASA where it is now was by working with our colleagues in the field. Early on, The Wallace Foundation was great at helping build an afterschool systems network through their grantees, and we planned together, and learned, and shared. Then when Every Hour Counts was created by us, we could share strategies, and we could really share secrets with each other and support each other. That became huge. The mayor of Providence became very connected to the mayor of Nashville. And then the Nashville mayor wanted to replicate what Providence was doing. Having these cities collegially working together is absolutely key.
The good thing about 2023 is that there's a group of cities through Every Hour Counts that are all seeing the academic and mental health crisis that COVID created. They can stand together to say, "What are we seeing? What do we think we should do? How do we react to this?" Because if you're going in alone as a little city, you don't have the big picture. How do we stay strong, and balanced and find the research and data that backs us up? Again, having a collective that's using data, and is rooted in quality, assessment, and accountability around youth development and child development metrics is extremely helpful to cities who are trying to make a case that this is what they should be doing. I think staying on top of the customers’ (youth) priorities is what the field can do because it's close to the ground. The whole field is close to the ground.
WF: You've devoted so much of your life to PASA. What does the next chapter look like for you?
I'm going to play, and I'm going to be a kid.
HS: I've retired, and I've decided to be a kid. I just worked my butt off for 40-something years. I'm going to play, and I'm going to be a kid. I have a house in Newfoundland where I live two and a half months of the year. I try to kayak, hike, camp, enjoy my grandchildren, and get out in nature. I'm playing, doing arts and crafts. I'm doing all the things you're supposed to do in the afterschool world. I play volleyball, and I ski in the winter. I am on a few boards. I'm on the board of my Unitarian church and am helping with a campaign for the Congress seat. I am on the board of a charter school. I'm doing a little bit of volunteering. That's like joining a club. That's like my student council club. My life is like the PASA menu of programs, and I'm trying it all.
I think one of the greatest rewards is knowing that PASA is alive and well and is thriving , and that it is a systemic and institutional sustainable idea. All new staff, great leader. They're all trucking along, doing amazing things in the city, and serving so many youth really well.
Top photo: Hillary Salmons tells us she has been able to enjoy many hobbies during retirement, including picking blueberries, enjoying nature, kayaking, camping, playing volleyball, and spending time with her grandchildren.