Engaging Older Youth: Program and City-Level Strategies

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 Engaging Older Youth: Program and City-Level Strategies

Given the important benefits that longer-term participation in OST programs can yield, this study sought to understand more fully the nature of program characteristics (both program practices and structural features) that support sustained participation, using both quantitative and qualitative data. Analysis of survey data enabled us to determine which types of program practices and features, among the many that programs employ, are uniquely and quantitatively associated with longer retention rates. (We use the proportion of youth retained in the program for 12 months or more as our measure of retention.) This analysis yielded a set of “distinguishing” characteristics of high-retention programs.

Survey analysis also identified other practices that were commonly used by programs with high retention. Although these were not significantly related to retention, analysis of the interview data illuminated how and why these practices might be linked to engaging older youth. The interviews also revealed additional program practices we had not asked about in the survey that staff members believed to be important to a young person’s decision to stay involved in programs. Although these other program practices were not linked to retention, we present them here because they may be related to other aspects of participation such as engagement and frequency. Clearly, these potentially promising practices warrant further research to determine whether and how they are associated with participation. Similarly, survey and program data revealed a set of commonly reported recruitment practices. We do not have evidence that these practices are significantly related to retention; still, we suggest it is important to understand how programs with high rates of participation are able to get youth to enroll in them.

In this chapter, we first summarize the results of our empirical analysis and discuss the practices and features that were found to be quantitatively linked to retention rates. We then present the additional promising program and recruitment practices that emerged through interviews and survey analysis in order to provide an integrated picture of what it takes to promote sustained participation for older youth. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the recruitment practices commonly used by the programs in our interview sample.

Empirical Evidence of Program Characteristics That Matter for Sustained Participation

To identify the characteristics that most distinguish high-retention programs from other programs, we conducted a regression analysis to determine which of the many practices and features we asked about were empirically related to the proportion of older youth participants retained for more than 12 months. In other words, we asked whether engaging in each practice or program feature changed the percentage of older youth whom the organization retains, holding all of the other practices and features of an OST program constant.xi

Results from these analyses suggest that there is a relatively small set of program characteristics that distinguish programs that achieve high rates of retention among older youth from programs that do not. We divide these into program practices—what are also referred to as process features in program quality literature19 —and structural features. Specifically, two program practices and three structural features distinguish the high-retention programs in this study (see Table 2.1 for results of the regression analysis):

Distinguishing program practices

  • Offering many leadership opportunities
  • Staff members using multiple techniques to keep informed about youth’s lives

Distinguishing structural features

  • Being based in the community rather than a school
  • Enrolling 100 or more youth per year
  • Holding regular staff meetings to discuss program related issues

The number of leadership opportunities, the number of ways in which staff members stay informed about youth, and the three structural features explain 38 percent of the variance in retention.


Distinguishing Program Practices of High-retention Programs

The two program practices that set high-retention programs apart in our regression analysis were an emphasis on offering many leadership opportunities and efforts of staff members to keep informed about youth in many ways (e.g., collecting report cards and contacting parents regularly). These are the practices that were significantly related to youth participation in a program for 12 months or more when all other variables were taken into account. Although other program practices may play a role in retention (and we discuss possible examples below), these two were the ones that distinguished the high-retention programs in this study’s sample.xii We discuss each in this section.

How to Think About OST Attendance for Older Youth :

Commitment May Matter More Than Hours

Many providers reported that daily attendance at a youth program is often not realistic for teenagers—that high school students would never come to a program 4 days a week and that it is developmentally “off” to expect older youth to attend a program every day. A New York City respondent, for example, noted that “inundating them with required hours” does not work.

Most of the programs (92 percent) we interviewed have attendance requirements for youth, many of which are tied to a funding source, although only 22 percent indicated that they enforce these requirements. Because teens are often engaged in many activities and have choices about how they spend their time, OST programs (with some notable exceptions including After School Matters and a few other programs) have found that attendance requirements are difficult to apply to their work with older youth. Instead, they focus on encouraging youth to attend. According to a respondent in Providence,

    We’re not requiring kids to come, to sign up for 4 days a week. . . . We say, “You can come as many or as few days as you want.” How do we . . . get kids to want to come 4 days a week if we’re not requiring it? We’re trying to make it something that they feel like they have some choice over.

Additionally, many programs have set up systems to work with individual youth on attendance: A student’s absences might trigger a conversation with the youth, then contact with the family; in some instances, youth are dropped from the enrollment list.

Less frequent attendance with a high level of commitment, however, is an attainable goal for older youth in OST programs. Providers suggested that what matters more is engagement—the level of involvement and feelings of connection to the program. The message of many providers in OST programs for older youth was that commitment cannot be measured by hours attended but by what happens when youth are there: Quality often matters more than quantity.


Opportunities for leadership development

The number of leadership opportunities offered by a program was the strongest single predictor of retention in our study, taking into account all the others examined. Overall, 88 percent of the high-retention programs (defined as those retaining 50 percent or more of their participants for 12 months or more) in our survey offer leadership activities. Table 2.2 shows the percentage of high-retention programs that provide various types of leadership opportunities. For example, 81 percent of high-retention programs offer community service activities, and 67 percent have youth councils or decision-making groups. These findings do not suggest that other leadership opportunities that we examined are not important; rather, these are the practices that are more often found in high-retention programs (see Table G.1 in Appendix G for more detail).

Interviews with providers confirm the importance of leadership opportunities for retention. In San Francisco, for example, one provider structures the program so that “if you are there for 2 years, there’s an opportunity to provide more leadership to the group, have direct meetings with the staff on a weekly basis, and provide major input to the program”; staff members have found that this is a message that keeps youth coming back.


Staff members also revealed how they embed peer leadership opportunities within activities. One provider described how in a jewelry class, “If one student picks up the process quickly, they can go to their neighbor and help them out,” and the provider encourages students to do this. Another provider explained that youth in a hip-hop program learn the basics but collaborate with other youth who have been in the program longer to work on skill development.

These leadership opportunities may contribute to retention by giving urban youth a voice, a sense of belonging in programs, and a highly visible role in the programs—important connections they do not necessarily get elsewhere.

Staff members staying informed about and connected to youth

The number of ways in which staff members stay informed about youth outside of the program emerged as the other distinguishing program practice of high-retention organizations (see Table 2.1). Staff members in high-retention programs go out of their way to develop relationships with youth and stay connected to their lives by using significantly more of the strategies we asked about to keep informed about youth outside of the program than do staff in lower-retention programs.

In more than two-thirds of the program interviews, providers suggested that their program works in large part because of the relationships developed between staff and youth. A provider in Chicago observed,

    I always refer to [great staff] as the pied pipers. . . . The kids are following them around . . . [and] clinging to them, because there’s something about them that gives a message of “I really care about you, I really accept you for who you are, I really believe that you can be successful at what you do.” And that all gets communicated to [the youth].

Table 2.3 shows that high-retention programs go far beyond merely providing opportunities to interact with staff informally and one-on-one. They make school visits, collect report cards, meet regularly with youth one-on-one, contact parents regularly, and know about and recognize the accomplishments of youth program participants outside of the program (see Table G.2 in Appendix G).


In interviews, program staff members described why keeping informed about youth participants’ activities, accomplishments, and behavior outside of the program can be so important for retention. Keeping up with busy youth reminds those youth that the programs are there for them, as this provider explained:

    Their lives are so full . . . and the afterschool program can very quickly fall to the bottom on their list of things to do. And I think just seeing us and being out in the school, seeing our faces. If you’re there when they’re walking out of their classroom, they’re like, “Oh, let me check in with you.”

Efforts to get to know youth outside the program, though sometimes difficult, help older youth make transitions between different activities and events in the course of their day. These efforts also enable staff members to learn about youth in different settings and to notice opportunities for support that they might not otherwise have a chance to observe. Two New York programs, for example, use report cards as part of their regular check-in with students both to keep track of their progress outside of the program and to assess the types of support they might need for the academic work.

The qualities of the staff members who are staying informed about and connected with youth also matter, according to providers interviewed. Staff members who demonstrate consistently that they care about each youth support individual development and, at the same time, encourage continued participation. One New York practitioner noted that over time, “You see [how] that youth worker can get that kid to participate in different activities that they never thought they would do—by virtue of their personality, their charisma, their relationship.”

Interview data suggest that, in addition to staying informed about youth, staff members in high-retention programs pay attention to what individual youth need and treat them with respect. We heard repeatedly that staff members are great listeners and can empathize with youth. Staff members call every youth by name and remember what is happening in their lives—good or bad. Authenticity was also cited as important. One provider emphasized that youth “know if you have prepared, they know if you’re listening to them, they know if you value them, and they know if you’re just giving them a line.”

Some programs have staff members from the local community, which, for these programs, seems to create a very important connection to their youth participants. These staff members see youth in the neighborhood as well as in the program and know the challenges they face on a daily basis: “They understand some of the struggles that these kids go through, and they can relate to it. And they have this awesome ability to just be patient with the kid, regardless.”

Distinguishing Structural Features of High-retention Programs

The program practices discussed throughout this chapter are embedded in structural features of the programs that can contribute to creating an environment conducive to retention. Therefore, our program survey was designed to better understand which structural features might be associated with retention. The structural features we examined in the regression analysis included the number of months the program runs, the number of days per week programming is offered, the location (school-based or community-based) of the program, the number of youth served, whether the program serves youth in close proximity (i.e., a neighborhood or school versus several neighborhoods or the city), and whether the program is the only one of its kind in the neighborhood.

Of the structural features we examined, the three that were significantly related to the percentage of youth retained for a year or more, after controlling for all the other practices that the programs engaged in, were

  • Location in a community-based organization
  • Enrollment of 100 or more youth per year
  • Holding regular staff meetings about the program (30 or more minutes twice a month)

The community-based location of high-retention programs may be important because in many urban areas, “school is not a place where a lot of [members of] the communities will hang out all the time,” as one provider said, even though in other areas schools can be a boon to OST program recruitment and to making connections with youth. High school students in particular have freedom to travel and, as some providers suggested, are not inclined to stay at their schools after the last bell. Additionally, youth have told programs that “they . . . sometimes don’t come because the same young people who are disruptive in class are also there in after school, and ‘I just sort of don’t want to deal with that anymore.’ ” Finally, for many youth who feel disconnected from their schools, community-based programs can offer strong alternative learning environments.

Being a larger program enrolling 100 or more youth per year might indicate a stronger organizational infrastructure and better resources that in turn contribute to stronger programs for older youth. A larger program may also provide more opportunities for youth to stay involved in the program as their interests change as well as more opportunities for peer interaction and new friendships. Indeed, we found that high-retention programs provided more opportunities on average for peer interaction than did lower-retention programs (3.6 versus 2.8). This difference, however, did not significantly relate to retention once size and other practices were taken into account (see Table G.3 in Appendix G).

A third structural feature—having regular staff meetings to discuss program-related issues—also was uniquely and quantitatively linked to retention rates. These meetings represent an intentional focus on program planning and management that may suggest intentionality in other facets of the organization, including the program’s focus on youth retention. In addition, these meetings could provide opportunities for problem solving, professional development, and staff interaction that may boost staff members’ morale and encourage them to stay involved with the program longer, which some providers suggested can keep youth engaged over time. Finally, these meetings provide a way for all staff members to know about issues that may have arisen with particular youth or activities. This awareness in turn allows staff members to support youth collectively.

Promising Practices for Supporting Participation: Additional Survey and Interview Findings

In addition to the practices and features described above that statistically increased retention rates in and of themselves, providers commonly reported, through survey and interview data, an additional set of practices that support older youth participation in programs: practices to foster community, intentionally addressing the developmental needs of older youth through tailored programming and incentives, and engaging families. Although we do not know conclusively whether these practices promote retention in other settings, we do know that they were reported by the programs in our study (both on the survey and in interviews) as being part of an overall “participation package.” In addition, some practices mentioned by staff members were not asked about on the survey and surfaced only in the interviews; therefore, these practices were not tested empirically. We present these as promising practices because they may be linked to other aspects of participation, such as engagement or frequency, rather than retention. The practices discussed in this section should thus be viewed as being “potentially linked” to retention. Further research is warranted to better assess the relative merits of this additional set of practices.

Below, we present these promising practices as reported by high-participation program staff members and identified by the high-retention survey sample. To understand how widespread these practices are among the programs that retain 50 percent of participants for a year or more, we report what percentage of these highretention programs employ them.

Fostering a sense of community

According to more than half of the OST program providers we interviewed, helping youth feel connected to the program—through creating a sense of community, shared norms, and safety—is a factor in keeping youth engaged over time. Providers pay a great deal of attention to how they make youth feel in their organization.

In San Francisco, a provider noted that participants enter as individuals but “then they leave here as part of the group.” Other program providers talked about their community as a “second family” or a “family environment.” One New York provider explained,

    We’re always here, we’re always consistent, there’s always a great lesson [and a] . . . a comforting feeling that “I can go to a place where people know who I am, they say, ‘Hi’ to me, [and] if I don’t show up I’m going to get a call home.” Follow-up is huge. . . . Kids start to feel like, “Wow, I’m actually missed.”

Programs often foster a sense of community based on a shared interest. Many of the programs we interviewed, for example, incorporate hip-hop elements or create programming around hip-hop. One program found this activity particularly important for youth who are disengaged from school because it gives them a voice and a history to identify with. Youth then see that, as one provider put it, “You must learn what happened before you in order to really understand what you’re doing.” These positive connections to a larger community are critical for youth who might not have a community at home, in school, or elsewhere, just as the leadership opportunities discussed above may not be available to youth outside of the programs.

Connecting older youth with resources is another way OST programs help them feel part of a larger community that is caring and providing for them. Organizations in this study take seriously their charge to support youth in any way they can. One Washington, DC provider explained,

    And with that discipline [to learn in the program], we’re like, “If you’re this disciplined about art, if you’re this disciplined about becoming a b-boy, imagine what you could do! . . . We are the resource to do whatever you want to do. You want to go to college? And you want to get your GED? We’re the resource. What do we need to do? You want to go visit? You want to talk to somebody? We’re the resource. Because you’re here, now. We brought you in because this is what you wanted to do. Now we’re the resource.”

Finally, programs foster a sense of community by offering meaningful opportunities for youth to interact with their peers. Many youth, particularly in middle school, are motivated by friendships in their choices about which programs to attend and how long to attend those programs. Program providers emphasized in interviews that time for socializing is important for youth after school. Students may have to sit through a silent lunch during the school day or may have no recess during which to interact with friends, so it becomes important for OST providers to structure time for peer interaction in their programs. Some providers suggested they do so primarily by giving youth time to talk. Others described creating team-building exercises for participants, in which they emphasize that participation in OST programs offers an opportunity to meet new friends and connect with youth who have similar interests.

The Role of High Expectations for Retention

One New York City program’s high retention rates stem from an unusual source—youth commitment to long hours of extra work. Though some might think that requiring teenagers to give up their afternoons and weekends to attend rigorous classes with extra homework might inhibit retention, the experience of this program has proven different. Providing college advising and preparatory services, the program is offered 6 days per week. Youth often participate 2 to 5 hours per day beyond their regular school day and on Saturdays, attending sessions on SAT preparation, classes in math and reading, and writing seminars. Additional requirements include attendance at college panels; college and university field trips; and workshops on the college application process, college admissions, financial aid, and the freshman year.

The program staff’s high expectations for student success are an important factor in youth participation. These expectations are expressed through challenging classes and coursework, and consistent, individualized attention that the large urban schools, which most of their students attend, cannot hope to replicate.

What exactly are these high expectations? They extend far beyond the usual goal of encouraging youth to graduate from high school to helping them see that they can “achieve things that they thought they couldn’t. You don’t just have to go to the neighborhood school, you can really get the full college experience, you can get a masters and Ph.D.”

High expectations encompass challenging classes and the assumption that program participants take their responsibilities seriously and come to every class fully prepared. Consequences are clearly communicated and enforced. Far from discouraging youth from attending on a regular basis, the fact that staff members enforce high standards of behavior and accountability appears to support student retention. According to the program director,

    If they don’t have the proper notebook, if they come to class unprepared, we pull them outside and let them know, “If this happens twice, you’re suspended.” And it sends a message in the classroom that “this is serious. Even though you’ve chosen to be here, we’re business.” And you know, ironically, I think this year we haven’t lost one person because of that. . . . Kids really say, “Wow. They ARE serious about it.”

Finally, underlying staff members’ expectations for the youth in the program is a clear sense of care and concern. Youth seem to know that staff members hold them accountable because they are committed to their success. Perhaps this commitment plays the biggest role in the retention of students: They have forged a connection with a caring adult who takes the time to listen, teach, support, and consistently encourage them toward their highest potential.


Middle school programs in particular have reported that cliques can be a powerful mechanism for keeping youth involved in the program: “If you can offer those cliques what they need in order for them to have a good time, then you have a better chance of them coming, enrolling, and staying.” On the other hand, cliques can sometimes be a deterrent. A respondent in Washington, DC noted that friends often move from program to program together and can create situations that discourage other youth from joining certain programs. Indeed, survey analyses suggest a correlation between number of peers and retention; however, this relationship disappears once other features of the programs are taken into account. (See Table G.4 in Appendix G for more details.)

Support for the developmental needs of older youth

In addition to providing participants with opportunities to build strong connections to the program and to peers, providers in this study shape their programs in ways that are interesting, relevant, and developmentally important for older youth. They recognize that program approaches that work for an elementary school population may not work for middle and high school students and therefore tailor their programming to that age group. In addition to leadership development (discussed above), they provide a diverse set of activities and services aimed at older youth, offer opportunities to develop skills, and provide developmentally appropriate incentives. (Chapter 3 further explores developmental differences, examining the differences in programming for middle and high school youth.)

Diverse and developmentally appropriate programming

Program staff members stressed the importance of offering a variety of activities and services from which to choose in order to engage youth. For example, 63 percent of the high-retention programs in the survey sample offer youth employment, 72 percent offer targeted courses, 52 percent offer college preparation activities, and 85 percent offer academic activities. Similarly, 59 percent of the high-retention organizations offer services such as assistance with college applications, 24 percent offer GED help, and 52 percent offer links to jobs. (See tables G.5 and G.6 in Appendix G for more details.)

The staff members we interviewed also talked about more precisely targeting the activities and services toward the needs of older youth. In Providence, for example, there are chess classes and robotics classes that do not have wide appeal, but as one provider said, “The kids [who] are in those programs are totally committed to them. And they never miss [class].” In Chicago, providers observed that older students gravitate toward programs that are “culturally specific” to them or specific to their interests, which again can support sustained participation. As a result, these programs are often smaller than typical OST programs.

Opportunities to foster success and build skills

Providers interviewed for this study offer older youth the opportunity to build skills in areas that are of personal interest to them, which, they noted, is likely to be particularly important for youth who may not feel successful in school. OST programs can often support youth in ways that schools and other institutions cannot. When youth feel successful in these nonschool settings, that feeling may translate into a more optimistic approach to school or other pursuits. In one Washington, DC program that focuses on soccer and literacy, for instance, program staff members create a culture that runs counter to what one provider described as the “test-heavy academic environment” that youth face in schools. In this program, participants can “write anything, and it doesn’t have to be grammatically correct, and [they] can stand up and say it out loud, and somebody can be really proud of [them].”

Giving youth opportunities to work toward goals is another way these programs foster skill building. Apprenticeships and events such as poetry slams, exhibitions of work, and sports tournaments offer these types of opportunities. Apprenticeships are often intentionally structured to support youth in their development with the help of a “ladder” or a list of achievements needed to get to the next level of the program. Providers reported that this mix of choice and structure is effective in retaining youth. Participants can choose the skills they want to improve, and programs provide the structure and the advancement opportunities necessary to learn those skills.

Working toward goals often involves helping older youth with their expectations and paths after high school. Program respondents noted that youth continue to come back to their programs because they see a future payoff: OST programs can help youth forge a path to college or learn a skill that will help them in their careers. Experience in a youth program might be the first chance participants have to see that they can achieve their goals. One program in Washington, DC, for example, helped a student win a full scholarship to George Washington University; a staff member pointed out, “It’s gotten the [other participants] to become more excited about furthering their education because a lot of times they may have never seen anybody get a scholarship to college.”

Developmentally appropriate incentives

The types of incentives used by OST programs vary across age groups. To promote attendance among older youth, the programs in this study use rewards and incentives such as jobs and school credit, and necessities such as food. Table 2.4 shows the various types of incentives used by the programs that retained 50 percent of their participants for more than one year (the high-retention programs).

Some programs have point systems that give youth incentives to work toward achievements such as levels of attendance. Other incentives include grocery-store gift cards, movie tickets, bus passes, and clothes. As providers pointed out during our interviews, incentives offer a way of supplying youth in high-poverty areas with some of their most basic needs, which can in itself encourage sustained participation. The providers using these incentive systems recognize not only that youth need to help support their families financially, but also that food and basic necessities are in short supply. Many youth would not have an afternoon snack if the program did not provide food. A program in Chicago, for example, found that providing hot meals attracts more youth. Similarly, incentives can help youth buy things they would not otherwise be able to—and that could even be a pair of socks:

    A lot of our students are economically challenged, or they’re in situations where they don’t have clothes. But nobody wants to say in front of your peers, “I don’t have socks. I need socks.” But it’s a lot easier to say, “Oh, I earn my money. I’ll buy my socks [at the program store].”

Although these incentives may help sustain youth involvement, many program providers reported that they are not the most important reason youth come to the program. One program staff member was quick to point out that while stipends, for example, help attract youth, “the relationship [with staff] is the biggest thing, even when the money falls out.” Interestingly, only 16 percent of high-retention programs use financial incentives (compared with 24 percent that use school credit and 76 percent that use field trips as incentives), again suggesting that money alone does not persuade youth to stay in OST programs over time (see Table G.7 in Appendix G).


Incorporating family engagement

Most of the programs that we surveyed reported that they use multiple techniques to engage parents, including interacting with parents informally, sending home information, or calling parents when appropriate. High-retention programs on average use 7.6 different ways to reach parents (see Table G.8 in Appendix G for the full list of techniques). As Table 2.5 shows, 80 percent or more reported holding individual meetings with parents, sending information about programs and community resources to parents, getting parent input through surveys and group meetings, and holding events for parents. Just over half (52 percent) reported going so far as to provide courses for parents.

While some providers told us in interviews that they saw family engagement as “essential,” they also noted how difficult family engagement is for both programs and parents. Providers reported many of their own barriers to successful family engagement—including lack of staff capacity, resources, and funding—as well as barriers for parents, such as having to be at work during afterschool hours. Providers expressed the fear that reaching out to parents could turn adolescents away from participation—that they might be “getting to that age where they don’t want to listen to their parents. If their parents suggest it, then it’s probably not [a] cool kind of thing.” Among the programs surveyed, however, the choice to attend the program was made by the youth. A youth alone or youth together with their parents chose the program in 97 percent of high-retention programs. These findings suggest that programs that successfully engage parents may be cultivating ways to do so without undermining the increasing autonomy of their older youth participants.


The providers who did emphasize the value of family involvement to OST program participation reported that parents are critical in part because they can communicate the value of participation and the importance of consistent participation to youth. Among these providers, the overarching theme in their efforts to connect with families is their determination to encourage youth success and foster parents’ recognition of that success. One Washington, DC program provider reported: “We try to call parents especially when their child is doing well because I think so many parents have become accustomed to getting phone calls from the school district when [their] kid is doing bad.” Another program in the city uses family communication to encourage parents’ interest in youth activities and development, enabling families to track student progress, look for benchmarks, and celebrate successes. This outreach confirms programs’ support for healthy youth development and staff members’ real concern about participants, echoing our finding that this type of staff outreach is one of the distinguishing characteristics of high-retention programs.

Promising Recruitment Practices

Recruitment practices per se were not a distinguishing feature of high-retention programs; however, providers repeatedly noted that their recruitment plan was critical to running a successful program. Overall, high-retention programs use more recruitment practices than lower retention programs; programs in this study also address recruitment challenges with program practices aimed at finding the right fit between programs, staff, and youth, with implications for keeping youth engaged over time (see Table G.9 in Appendix G). This section addresses the recruitment practices reported most often both in interviews and on the survey.

Getting the word out in the community

Our interviews and survey analyses highlight two commonly employed practices for getting the word out about programs: peer recruitment and staff recruitment in the community. Almost all OST programs in our sample, regardless of their retention rates, use word-of-mouth peer recruitment techniques, but our survey sample revealed that significantly more high-retention programs also had staff reach out to youth in the community. In fact, more than three-quarters of the high-retention programs reported using this strategy (see Table G.9 in Appendix G). Helping youth and parents understand an OST program’s environment and reputation is a key strategy for staff in recruiting older youth to the program. Many of the programs we interviewed have a particular identity that they want to convey to youth and parents. Others find it important to communicate their expectations for youth, particularly those programs that have high expectations, as described in the textbox on page 23.

At the same time, program providers have the sense that parents are sometimes less concerned with what the program is providing than with who is supervising the activities; thus, among the providers interviewed, communicating the program’s reputation is critical for recruitment. Many parents want to know that the people their children are spending time with are “good people,” which—for parents and for some youth as well— sometimes trumps what the youth are actually doing in the program.

Using organizational relationships to connect with youth

Interviews revealed that programs that successfully recruit in schools devote time to developing relationships with teachers, principals, and, when one exists, the school’s afterschool liaison. Relationships with principals are particularly important, according to program staff. As one New York respondent reported, “If the [program’s] relationship with the principal is not good, the kids are not coming.” In cities like New York and San Francisco, where principal empowerment is part of the school reform climate, principals have the power to make OST an integral part of the school day and to hold others accountable for program access and enrollment. Providers report that teachers’ approval of and efforts to support school-based programs can also improve recruitment. One initiative director noted, “If [teachers] give us the thumbs up or if they give us the thumbs down, that can make or break us.”

Based on their relationships with schools and individual teachers, some OST program providers are able to use school-day classroom time to make connections with youth. One OST theater program provider taught an English class, for example, to get youth interested in her program. In New York, a community-based legal education program runs lessons for eighth-grade students in underperforming schools and then invites the students to fill out a preapplication form to the program if they are interested.

Working with schools can create recruitment challenges for OST programs, however, if they lack a good relationship with the school or if they have been placed in a school “cold”—that is, without any previous relationships—as one provider put it. In these cases, they have to work extremely hard to develop those relationships from scratch:

    Basically, the key is to get one adult in the building interested. . . . They understand the culture of the school, the culture of what happens, who might be interested in something like this, who wouldn’t be, who’s good with kids in the afterschool time, who isn’t, and so my goal, when I go into a new school, is to find that one adult [who] can connect with kids and help us create from there.

Interestingly, high-retention programs are more likely to ask partner organizations to refer youth, again suggesting that the development of relationships is key to recruitment.

Program attributes that are attractive to older youth

Two-thirds of providers interviewed reported specific features of their programs that are helpful for recruitment. Three features stood out: filling a gap in learning or available activities, offering youth their own space within the program setting, and distinguishing program time and activities from what happens in school.

Filling a gap in learning or activities

Although most OST programs in this study operate in neighborhoods with other providers, many providers interviewed noted that their recruitment benefits because they offer a missing or underrepresented activity in their neighborhood or school—a new sport, a new technology class, or a new music class. According to one Washington, DC provider, they “fill a gap in a community.” Program providers need to know who might be interested in these particular activities and target their recruitment accordingly. This targeted recruitment might mean that some specialized programs enroll smaller numbers of youth who are more likely to stay in the program over time. According to one program director, “I don’t mind having a smaller group . . . and in fact, that actually works out really well in a lot of our programs, and they’re designed to allow us . . . more one-on-one interaction.”

Offering a welcoming space for youth

We heard from OST providers that, when making decisions about attending programs, older youth want to have a place for themselves that feels like home, where they know they will be safe, participate in interesting activities, and have time with their friends. Separate youth space can be important for older youth, particularly high school youth. This is likely to be particularly true in deeply distressed neighborhoods in which the street might be the only alternative youth space.

Some multi-age programs have teen rooms, while some programs geared just toward older youth have rooms with couches, a television, and a refrigerator when possible. Youth have some independence to visit with their friends and get snacks when they want to. These spaces give youth developmentally important opportunities to be independent and to forge connections with peers. They can also be spaces in which informal learning and mentoring take place.

Making the program environment distinct from the school environment

Many of the program providers working in schools intentionally make their programs distinct from the school-day environment, in part to improve recruitment. They know older youth do not necessarily want to stay in the school building longer than they need to, and the programs thus go to great lengths to make their space feel different—from rearranging a classroom from its school-day set-up to making sure that content is structured differently from what students have been learning for the previous several hours. A provider in one Chicago program said, “From a developmental perspective, they’re doing a lot that they don’t get in the school day. So in school, you know it’s the ‘drill and kill,’ and it’s math and reading.... We really stress that this isn’t more school.” In addition, program content, even when academic, looks very different from what happens in school. Youth get the chance not only to try things they might not have the opportunity to try in school, such as theater or jewelry making, but also to participate in hands-on, project-based activities and active learning through group read-alouds rather than worksheets and more passive activities.


Our analysis has indicated important and new findings about the ways in which programs can keep youth engaged over time. First and foremost, the quantitative analysis identified five program characteristics that appear to increase retention rates in and of themselves, controlling for all other practices the organizations engage in:

  • Offering multiple leadership opportunities to youth
  • Staff using many techniques to keep informed about youth participants’ lives
  • Being based in the community rather than in a school
  • Enrolling a larger number of youth (100 or more per year)
  • Holding regular staff meetings to discuss program-related issues

Survey and interview data also revealed three commonly used program practices for improving participation: fostering a sense of community, providing youth with developmentally appropriate opportunities and incentives, and finding multiple ways to work with families. In addition, this study found a set of commonly reported recruitment practices. Although these practices were not found to be statistically significant in regression analysis, we suggest that these additional recruitment and retention practices warrant more attention and further investigation because they were identified by a set of programs that showed capacity to get and keep youth engaged over time.

These findings, taken together, indicate that programs that successfully retain older youth use a variety of intentional program practices to keep youth engaged over time; there is no single formula for improving retention. It is important to bear in mind that the program characteristics discussed in this chapter—both the distinguishing practices and features and the additional practices—work within the mission and purpose of the OST programs to create an engaging and supportive environment for older youth. These programs endeavor to help low-income youth overcome not only the challenges they face in their daily lives but also socioeconomic forces and stereotypes about them in their schools and the larger community. As one high school program director explained,

    I want youth [who] are in our program to believe that they have options in life. They don’t have to be trapped in a cycle of poverty. I want the youth to not feel that their character has to be defined by their skin color or their income level or their ethnic background or their gender. I think that there are certain intangible goals that are just things I feel very strongly about. I want people to come out with a sense of character and belonging, and the idea that they have the capabilities to do whatever they set their mind to.

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xi. Specifically, we included any variables in which the bivariate correlations with 12-month retention rates differed significantly between lower- and high-retention programs. See Appendix E for a more in-depth discussion of the analysis.

xii Characteristics that had the highest correlations in the bivariate analysis but that were not distinguishing features were the number of parent engagement activities, staff-to-youth ratio, the number of strategies to build youth–staff relationships, the number of opportunities for peer interaction, the number of rewards and incentives, the number of recruitment strategies, the greater the extent to which data are used for staff development and training, the number of activities provided, and the number of services offered.