Engaging Older Youth: Program and City-Level Strategies

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 Engaging Older Youth: Program and City-Level Strategies

Attention to developmental differences emerged in this study as central to OST providers’ overall strategy for keeping middle and high school youth engaged over time. Providers we interviewed recognized that they need to be prepared for developmental changes as youth move from elementary to middle to high school and that if they don’t anticipate what these changes mean for their programs, they are going to lose their participants’ interest. They understood the developmental needs of older youth, what attracts them to programs, and how OST programs can support these age groups differently. This chapter reports on information gathered from interviews with leaders of the 28 programs in our interview sample, which were chosen based on their participation rates of 60 percent and above (see Chapter 1 for more on the interview sample).

This set of providers emphasized that each youth is on his or her own individual path, which requires programs to provide intensive individual attention. As a director of a Washington, DC program put it, “It’s almost like we develop a philosophy that, in order to reach a kid, you’ve got to meet them where they are. And if you can meet them where they are, then you can take them somewhere else.” As intensive and expensive as this individual attention may be, providers noted that it is critical to youth’s development, compensating for the lack of attention many of the youth experience at school and at home. Program providers in this sample reported using many strategies for this individualized approach to working with youth: They have staff members who develop individual relationships with youth; they often allow for flexibility in scheduling and expectations; and they provide a variety of opportunities to allow youth to excel.

In addition to their understanding of the developmental continuum of adolescence, the providers we interviewed noted differences in program strategies for working with middle and high school youth, based on the developmental stages of these age groups. For example, many programs intentionally organize activities in different ways for middle and high school youth. Middle school OST programs tend to have a variety of choices within some structure to allow youth to try out different activities that might interest them; they also provide youth with more time to hang out with friends. In contrast, OST programs for high school youth, occurring at a stage when many youth have clear ideas about the activities they like and want to learn more about, offer more specialized activities with fewer options for choice.

Regression analysis of survey data provided empirical evidence that the program features that were significantly related to retention—offering many leadership activities, staff keeping informed about youth participants’ lives, being located in community-based settings, serving larger numbers of youth, and having regular staff meetings about programs—were similar for programs serving middle school youth and those serving high school youth.xiii However, interviews with program providers revealed differences in how these and other various practices are implemented and differences among the programs as a whole—issues that the survey did not explore. Thus, while we do not have empirical evidence showing that attention to developmental differences is a factor in retention, it did emerge as a central theme of our program interviews; therefore, like the promising program practices described in Chapter 2, it warrants further exploration.

Working With Middle School Youth :
The Importance of Peer Interaction and Identity Development

The teaching artists from a theater organization in Providence concentrate on developmentally targeted approaches when working with middle school youth on problem solving and leadership development. Using best practices from the field and drawing from years of experience working with a wide range of youth, this organization prioritizes youth development and arts education principles when designing programming. Taking into consideration the importance of peer interaction and identity development during the middle school years, staff members structure programs and activities around student-driven positive reinforcement as a way for youth to learn to support, encourage, and help each other while also providing ample opportunities for peer interaction. As one staff member reflected, though it is important for middle school youth to see adults modeling a supportive learning environment, peer-to-peer education is also a powerful, influential tool with this age group, especially when developing important life skills such as giving and receiving constructive feedback:

    We think it’s really, really important to teach [middle school youth] that language, [and] to really be a little bit more formal ... to each other. That kind of feedback is not JUST coming from you to them ... whenever they do a performance, it can’t just be from me. It HAS to be from each of them. And then it turns to a point where I don’t even need to be a part of it. It’s really about giving them the skills so that they can make each other better. And I’m just there to jump in when they need it. That’s what the difference between elementary and middle school is.

Innovative and effective approaches to working with middle school youth come from understanding that youth at this age are just starting to explore different aspects of their identities as they develop and figure out more about themselves and how they want to fit into the world around them. Through activities such as acting, improvisation, pantomiming, and other theater arts games, youth in the program are actively encouraged to explore and “try on” different identities, committing to playing out characteristics or personality traits that they may not normally gravitate toward. Many youth find a voice and a receptive audience when they otherwise feel silenced and invisible at home or in school. Theater can help students form a strong, positive sense of self, because with “theater, in general, every single game forces you to be so many different things ... it’s all ABOUT changing identity.”

In combination with the program’s approach to developing a community of youth who actively support each other, the innovative, developmentally targeted programming engages middle school youth in perspective taking, team building, and fostering a confident, healthy sense of self.


Middle School Programs

Program providers in our sample observed that middle school students are particularly difficult to recruit. Because these youth are in the process of developing autonomy, they are less inclined to participate in adult-supervised activities during nonschool time than elementary school students—they might want to play basketball at a local court but not in an afterschool program. They are also less inclined to break from their peer group to participate in program activities.

Other providers noted that middle school is a time when students begin to disengage from school as well as OST activities, especially those students who are over age for their class in school or otherwise lagging behind their peers. This disengagement, according to providers, emerges particularly during the eighth-grade year. Providers recognized that eighth graders need something different or something “older” geared toward their transition into high school, or they will not continue their participation in the program. Providers were also in tune with what middle school youth need to feel supported. The programs we interviewed had staff members who focus on listening, are patient with the inconsistencies of middle school youth, and use nonverbal communication and body cues to understand what their program participants need.

The following are some strategies that programs use to engage middle schoolers:

Recognize middle schoolers’ need to be with friends. First and foremost, the providers in our sample incorporate ways for middle school youth to socialize. According to one middle school provider, “If a friend is doing it, they’ll all want to do it.” Programs structure their middle school activities to ensure that youth have time to do homework with friends, connect with friends before joining activities, or work with friends in small group activities. As Chapter 2 describes, peer interactions, although not a distinguishing feature, are correlated with OST retention rates for older youth. Our interviews suggested that successful programs for middle school youth are possibly even more creative in providing opportunities for peer interactions than high school programs.

Provide structure and routine within an atmosphere of exploration. One provider in Providence noted that middle school youth are “consistently inconsistent.” Middle school youth are always changing, and staff members working with middle school students must have the ability to adapt as needed. But, in part because of this inconsistency, middle school youth, according to providers, need structure and routine to help them feel safe and to support their developmental needs.

Another provider described creating a “tight container” around youth participants’ behavior. Routines in middle school are important for many aspects of the programs, from the sign-up process, to program activities, to transportation. Providers are intentional about providing constant reminders about enrollment to ensure that youth remember to sign up at the end of the day for a program they found out about at lunchtime. Program staff members distribute flyers, hang posters at schools, remind youth to sign up if they see them at school, and even phone youth who have signed up to remind them to come.

Part of letting youth explore within structure and routine is being consistent; providers reported that consistency can “make or break” a program for middle schoolers. In Providence, one provider noted that the program gets “one chance” to hook middle school students. If things go wrong on the first day, it sets a bad precedent for retention. For instance, at the end of the day when youth expect to get on a bus to go home, “and then the bus isn’t there to take [youth] back when the time comes, they’re out, that’s it. You lost them. That was your one chance, and you blew it.”

Use developmental stage to help youth try new activities. One provider described the middle school period as “a tipping point” in which youth are still willing to try new things under the right circumstances, but could be just as likely to begin to close themselves off to new ideas and opportunities. As youth begin to disengage from school, OST providers pointed out that “it’s the last chance to engage them.” Given the need for middle schoolers to be with friends, providers use the peer group to facilitate program participants’ willingness to try new activities. One OST program provider in Providence described how youth help their peers build skills:

    [If] someone is interested, but that skill for them isn’t that strong, we can group them in an activity—maybe it’s costuming. “Well, I know how to sew, and I can do this activity, and I can put this together.” “I’m a really good graphic artist, but Suzy’s kind of ‘eh’ about drawing; I can teach her how to do this.” “I’m really good at reading and memorizing my lines. Maybe I can teach you how to memorize your lines.”

High School Programs

As youth move into high school, they face a different set of challenges and need a different set of supports, in addition to the “mainstays” described in Chapter 2, to engage them successfully in OST programs. By high school, youth are largely independent, making their own decisions about how to spend their time and exercising their increasing freedom. They are starting to think about what will come next for them postgraduation, and many have developed interests that they can pursue in youth programs. As a result, high school programs’ efforts to retain youth are different from those of middle school programs, as a provider acknowledged:

    I think the high school programs are easy to run. I think a lot of times you have kids in a middle school program who may not want to be there, but it’s used as a form of afterschool day care by the parents who are working. I think once you get to the high school level, most of the participants really are motivated to be there, and they’re doing it because they want to—not because they have to.

Participation and College Access

Many of the high school programs in this high-participation sample use innovative strategies to tie programming to their participants’ plans for the future. One of these is a community-based hip-hop program in Cincinnati.

A sense of family, respect, and community is immediately apparent when you walk through the doors of this program. It serves as a dynamic and empowering haven for youth and young adults aged 14–24 to engage in skill building and leadership development through participation in innovative and engaging hip-hop arts programming.

Participating in the program encourages youth to consider and plan for their futures. The organization follows a flexible program structure, where youth have the option of learning to record and produce music, brush up on their graffiti arts or hip-hop dance skills, or master the art of DJing. Youth can also have a meal, finish their homework, socialize with friends, or do computer research on college or career plans. Program participants not only have access to professional instructors and high-quality sound and arts equipment, but also form valuable connections with mentors—peers with expertise, older youth who have stayed with the program for many years, or adults who are college-educated or successful professionals, many of whom came from the same neighborhoods the youth come from and who understand the pressures and dynamics of the community. These mentors guide youth, expose them to resources and possibilities, and help demystify the path to their goals, enabling them to take steps toward fulfilling their potential.

Even as they increase their knowledge and skills in various forms of hip-hop, youth participants are being introduced to college and professional opportunities that they may not have been aware of or had access to before joining the program. Although formal academic, college, and career programming is not part of the official curriculum, these topics consistently come up in discussions. According to one college-age participant,

    This is a place where I see kids talk more about education....They also have a sense that, “Okay, if I’m really [going to] be good at this, then I need to know how to perfect it. The way I can perfect this is to get a higher education.” If you come from college like me and other youth that come in, there’s a connection: “You know what? I wish I were where you’re at, at your age.” So as a give-back we’ve got the computers they go on [and explain], “This is how you fill out a college application; this is why you need the scholarship, leading into certain schools.”

At the most basic level, the program gives youth the tools and creative license for self-expression and accomplishment through hip-hop culture. Perhaps even more important, participants are immersed in a supportive, familiar environment, and whether they are headed toward college, a career in the arts or law, or in another direction yet to be envisioned, youth are surrounded by peers and adults who provide individualized support and guidance to help them set high standards and achieve their goals.


Interviews revealed that the following strategies are important to the high-participation programs for high school youth in this study:

Recognize that high school youth are motivated by content. High school youth know what they want to learn during their out-of-school time. As a result, programs serving high school students in our interview sample tend to have a narrower, more content-based emphasis than the middle school programs—whether the program concentrates on law or technology or music. Though some programs noted that it is harder to recruit high school students because they have so many more options and responsibilities than middle schoolers, many of the programs in the interview sample that were achieving high rates of participation among high school youth appear to be more targeted in their approach to programming; they understand that high school students are motivated by content to attend. At the high school level, choice may be important across programs in addition to within programs, so that high school students can best use their time to develop particular skills.

Give youth more responsibility. Many OST programs for high school youth look more like jobs than afterschool programs, preparing youth for the responsibilities of adulthood; the apprenticeship ladder at After School Matters is one example (see Chapter 2). Several programs mentioned the importance of having high expectations for youth (see textbox on page 23), and some tied these expectations to their retention rates. One program informs all its students that their middle names are “No Excuses”; another suspends youth if they come to activities unprepared. Both send the message that they “mean business” and carefully match consequences to behavior. Additionally, programs give youth more responsibility through mentoring so that high schoolers have the opportunity to work with younger youth or peers.

Help youth on their path after graduation. High school youth, according to one observer, are beginning to ask, “What about jobs? What about when I leave school? What’s out there for me?” Programs reported addressing these concerns in a variety of ways. One high school program in our study is geared to college access and enrollment. Another supports college goals as an embedded part of the programming: College students participating in the program shepherd high school students through college research and applications (see text box on page 35). Similarly, apprenticeships and other job-related programs help youth build the skills they will need to succeed in a range of occupations after high school; these include job-specific skills, knowledge of appropriate workplace behavior and appearance, and problem-solving skills.


The high-participation programs in this study pay attention to the developmental changes that youth experience as they move from elementary to middle to high school. Interviews with providers indicated that high-participation programs are structured differently to accommodate these developmental changes.

For middle school youth, providers

  • Give youth opportunities to socialize throughout the course of programming, not just during designated times to hang out
  • Create structures and routines to make youth feel comfortable and safe
  • Take advantage of these youth participants’ willingness to try new things, particularly through peer interaction

At the high school level, providers

  • Organize their programming more around content and the particular skills older youth want to learn
  • Give youth more responsibility through job-like programming, apprenticeships, and mentoring
  • Provide formal and informal opportunities to explore and prepare for college and other postgraduation plans

By responding to developmental differences between age groups, these strategies create settings for youth that are tailored to their needs and that give them a foundation for continued learning and growth. Just as important, providers noted that they recognize and take seriously the development of individual youth and incorporate individual differences into their activities.

In chapters 2 and 3, we have explored our findings about program characteristics that support sustained participation and the different strategies that OST programs use with middle and high school youth. We turn now to our findings about city-level supports for participation.

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xiii. None of the regression analyses we conducted yielded results that suggested a significant difference in the strength of association between the variable of interest and participation rates in programs responding about their high school versus middle school youth (i.e., in no case was the interaction term significant). Therefore, we concluded that these variables were similarly important in these two sets of programs.