NEWARK, NJ — In 2016, research practitioner Traymanesha Lamy, the executive director of the nonprofit Newark Thrives!, had a plethora of national data on youth development, just as many questions and an idea to unify and leverage the city’s afterschool programs that her colleagues said would never work.
Newark, its schools and education stakeholders had long sought to create a network for afterschool programming, an essential piece of improving student outcomes in cities like Newark. But before that could happen, someone needed to go out into the community to evaluate its needs and the resources that were already available.
"Originally people told me when we first started [Newark Thrives!], 'Programs are not going to want to do this,” she recalled. “An evaluation and assessment study? No one is going to want to participate, you're going to have to pay the programs to participate.”
Lamy, driven by a belief in holistic solutions and the power of collaboration, begged to differ.
After gathering feedback from students and families, Newark Thrives! and data evaluation specialist Josephine Russo developed a survey for an initial group of 50 programs, measuring their quality across multiple criteria in return for professional services as they progressively mapped out a directory of programs.
Aided by the formation of the Newark Data Assembly, of which Newark Thrives! is a founding member, what has evolved from Lamy’s persistence are real-time applications with deep community ties. The first product is the Newark Thrives! locator tool, a first-of-its-kind, free interactive online database that allows users to search for out-of-school programming by ward, program type, age group and other filters on the organization's website.
Organizations register their programs by completing a survey, which then populates the locator tool.
"Everything we are able to do is because of the community. This is a true collaborative, and that is what we are supposed to be doing,” Lamy said. “Otherwise, you get overlap in the work and people try to own everything. As Newark Thrives!, which is two people, it would be impossible to do this on our own.”
The NDA, which includes the city, its public and charter schools, Rutgers and other key stakeholders, is changing the way Newark solves civic challenges, according to Sociosmith CEO Vince Randolph, a lifelong Newarker whose team developed the first version of the locator tool at the city’s first-ever HackNewark competition.
“At HackNewark, we saw the need for a company to really usher people through creative solutions that serve their real-time needs. The program locator was really a first attempt at utilizing tech to meet the needs of the city,” Randolph said.
Randolph and his team of self-described tech geeks, No Talent Hack, participated in HackNewark on a whim, never expecting to be awarded a contract for what would become the locator tool 1.0. No Talent Hack used the NJ Transit application programming interface and turned the mess of data collected by Newark Thrives! and provided through the city’s Office of Information Technology into a prototype.
“The data in itself was the biggest challenge, and the importance of the program locator really hit home after it was built. It opened up Pandora’s box for creating a standard of how data should be used in a city,” Randolph said.
By collecting and analyzing information on factors affecting youth, Program Manager Shane Fuller said Newark Thrives! and its fellow NDA collaborators are increasing access to the city's resources for youth while simultaneously measuring their needs and success.
Ninety-five percent of Newark’s afterschool programs are now registered on the user-friendly locator map application. Since 2016, the number of after school and summer options listed has increased from 50 to more than 200.
Newark Thrives! is continuously developing the tool to include more information and resources, such as available mental health care providers.
“Newark is a very resource-rich community, no one can say that we don’t have the programs,” he said. “It’s really about making sure people know about them. Our locator tool is basically a one-stop-shop for our families.”
With that one-stop-shop for users comes a goldmine of information for Newark Thrives! that is helping the city see itself more clearly. Thanks to the mandatory survey programs must complete before joining the database, Lamy said her organization has pinpointed that the primary challenge for youth and families is transportation, particularly for those located outside the Central Ward, where most programs are housed.
Of Newark’s approximately 70,000 youth, Lamy said the data collected indicates only 23,000 are being served through afterschool and summer learning programs. Looking toward 2020, Newark Thrives! and its partners in the NDA are looking to not only increase that number but create data-driven solutions like universal student IDs, access tools, student location tracking and shared space for K-12 services.
More importantly, Lamy said, she and Newark Thrives! are committed to building strategically on lessons learned. She still has a lot of questions.
“I would like us to have a clear understanding of the type of challenges we’re facing,” she said. “What are the areas in schools that we see kids still struggling with? How do we go about building up a pathway for STEM education? How do we maximize and grow out the community to address socioeconomic issues within the out-of-school-time space?”