Four years ago, when Jason Ray was just beginning in his job as CEO of Clayton Youth Enrichment, the measurement of success was whether the program was keeping the children in its after school program safe and happy.
He had a feeling the program could offer something more impactful.
Clayton has been providing before- and after-school services in Tarrant County since 1975. It began as parent-run child care serving 27 children at Lily B. Clayton Elementary School in the Fort Worth ISD – hence its name.
But now it has grown to serve 7,576 students in more than 80 locations across Tarrant County, including 88 at Lily B. in the 2017-2018 period.
Study after study points out that reasonably priced child care is central to helping low-income parents find and keep sustainable employment. Other studies show that early exposure to reading, enrichment and socialization programs is a significate factor in future success both academically and in the work force.
Ray notes that Clayton has kids under its care for 400 to 700 hours each school year and simply keeping them safe and happy isn’t enough with that much time available.
Ray became CEO of Clayton in November 2015 after 17 years with Big Brothers Big Sisters Lone Star where he eventually became COO. He graduated from TCU in 1992 and then earned a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Texas at Arlington.
He was born in Fort Worth and adopted by a single mom when he was 3 days old.
“She placed a lot of emphasis on education,” Ray said. He was also a latch key child so he knows the missed opportunity for children who don’t participate in quality afterschool programs.
He attended St. Paul Lutheran, then South Hi Mount and Arlington Heights in the Fort Worth ISD.
Clayton provides services in the Fort Worth, Crowley, Keller and Birdville school districts with some programs involving families where 74 to 93 percent are classified as economically disadvantaged.
Three and a half years ago, he, his board and the staff began studying what Clayton could do that would bring more value to the time spent with children in the before and after school environment.
“What we landed on after surveying teachers, educators and parents was the value of assisting students with their social skills and emotional health,” Ray said.
It didn’t matter who was talking – parent or professional educator – the message was the same: children struggle to communicate clearly, maintain healthy relationships and manage their emotions. They also struggle to set goals and make responsible decisions that will help them achieve their goals.
The skills of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision making and relationship skills, are needed regardless of a child’s risk factors or economic status, Ray said.
Ray says the study reached that conclusion in 2016 and Clayton spent two years piloting what such a program would encompass.
“We reached a point last summer where we had a plan, worked with a firm to develop and craft that plan, and the budget for it,” he said. “Then we went to the foundations locally and we've raised just over half of the $1.3 million that we've set out for to fund the initiative.”
There are multiple and complex parts to launching such a program, including staff training, development of the program and engagement of an external evaluator.
“What is it the kids are getting? What's the experience they're having? What's the curriculum that we're putting in front of them? How will we measure impact?” Ray said.
There are existing curricula available but most are designed for the school day and the material they tried didn’t work well in the pilot program where the children are not in classes but in mixed grade-level groups.
“We've had to make accommodations and now have someone designing that curriculum for us internally. The curriculum is being developed based on student interests and the learnings from the two-year pilot process.
“A notable takeaway is that it is not always about the ‘what.’ It is sometimes more about the ‘who’ that determines the success. With this knowledge, Clayton has started their launch of SEL programming by building its staff capacity to deliver these programs responsibly and holistically to the children at Clayton. ” he said.
The initial funding will let Clayton train its staff members in how to build trust-based relationships and model and teach social-emotional skills, and help children manage emotions. Training is taking place this summer.
The biggest issue, Ray says, is that there can be a high turnover rate among after school staff members.
“How do you take that group, build their social-emotional health and skills, and then retain them?” he said. “We want to make working at Clayton such a great experience that they want to stay longer because they really enjoy working at the agency and, when they do leave us, they're better prepared for whatever comes next.”
There is encouraging news on this front. Program leader turnover at the sites that piloted the social and emotional learning effort was one-third of the turnover of non-pilot sites.
Implementation at the start of the coming school year will begin at 23 of Clayton’s sites, including both free and fee-based programs in the largest districts and a charter school and represents a predominately at-risk student population.
“The bench mark we've looked at the most is research that shows a 7 to 11% increase in academic performance by kids who are exposed to a strong social-emotional learning curriculum,” Ray said.
Employers are looking for healthy interpersonal skills and kids need them.
“Survey after survey will point that out, so, we know that's a need,” Ray said.
Ray believes staff can fulfill the agency’s vision of “preparing children for great lives” by developing the children’s relationship skills and emotional health.
After-school also provides a good environment for children to practice social skills. Rather than a sibling or a few neighborhood friends, after-school care might have as many as 90 kids present and available for interaction, he said.
“We're well positioned in the after school space to give kids both the training, and the experiences to practice. And it doesn't matter if that's a high income school or a low income school,” he said.
Ray said an educator suggested once that Clayton bring in volunteers not to read to children but to let children read to the adults, saying that children often don’t get to practice that skill with their parents because of other family pressures such as meals, homework and making sure the children get enough sleep.
But that interaction with adults is important.
Recall he worked at Big Brothers Big Sisters where that one-on-one relationship was the entire point, showing kids a different sense of future through an adult mentor.
“Essentially what I'm trying to do is take it after school and do that on a volume basis. We don't have the luxury of one-on-one, but we do have a 15 to one ratio and hundreds of hours of interaction each year,” he said.
Ray reflects on Disciples of Christ church summer camps and the impact of the workers.
“Those camp counselors I had in high school were hugely impactful, and I only had them for a week. I think our staff has a chance to be that kind of positive impact on kids,” he said.
Fort Worth ISD: 27 free programs serving 4,110 students in grades pre-k to 12th at extremely high-need schools (74-93% economically disadvantaged with an average of 49% English learners), 12 fee programs serving 618 students in k-6th grade.
Birdville ISD: 1 fee-based k-5 program serving 50 students (28% economically disadvantaged, 10% English learners)
Crowley ISD: 3 free programs serving 513 k-9th students in high-need schools (50-78% economically disadvantaged, average of 28% English learners), 392 students in 5 fee programs.
Keller ISD: 26 fee-based k-6 programs serving 1,504 students (25% economically disadvantaged, average of 8% English learners), 647 additional in summer.