Engaging Older Youth: Program and City-Level Strategies

Click here to download the full report:
 Engaging Older Youth: Program and City-Level Strategies

Policymakers and funders are increasingly aware of the many supports youth need for healthy development and a lifetime of learning. Out-of-school time programs are a critical component in this landscape of educational opportunities, particularly in low-income communities. Programs not only support specific learning outcomes for youth, but also provide many developmentally important opportunities that youth in these communities might not experience elsewhere. Particularly for older youth, OST programs can provide exposure to new opportunities, new environments, and new relationships that can sustain their interest in continued learning.

In this mixed-methods study, we described program characteristics (both program practices and structural features) that can help older youth become interested in OST programs and keep them engaged over time. Prior research has either relied solely on staff members’ opinions about which characteristics are important, or examined these characteristics in isolation. For example, prior research has noted that participation rates for younger children are higher than for older youth, 20 and that having late hours is a practice that attracts older youth,21 but these are isolated findings and do not provide solid evidence about practices that support retention. This study identifies a set of program characteristics that matter most when attempting to keep youth engaged for longer periods of time, using quantitative data from a large sample of programs on which we could conduct statistical analysis. Further, we are able to shed light on why these characteristics matter by using qualitative data to understand from program staff members’ perspectives how these factors play out in the lives of the youth. The discussion of other commonly used practices (those not statistically associated with retention, recruitment strategies, and strategies that emerged in our interviews as useful) give the field opportunities for more discussion and research.

In addition to examining program strategies, this study explored the supports that city-level OST initiatives are providing to improve access to and sustained participation in programs and found that, although these supports did not necessarily help improve retention, programs reported that many of them were helpful for their program participation goals.

Key Findings

Five program characteristics (two program practices and three structural features) were identified that set apart the programs that were the most successful in supporting high retention: providing many leadership opportunities to youth in the programs, having staff keep informed about youth outside programs in several ways, being community-based, enrolling 100 or more youth, and holding regular staff meetings.

These practices and features explained 38 percent of the variance in retention. Our analyses indicate that in this group of programs serving older youth, the ones that achieve relatively high rates of retention emphasize youth leadership and outperform other OST programs in their efforts to stay connected with youth; they are also more likely to be larger community-based organizations that give staff members regular opportunities to meet about their programs.

There is an additional set of retention and recruitment practices that, while not statistically related to retention, were consistently reported as being important in engaging older youth. High-retention programs often employ these practices.

Retention practices include fostering a sense of community through connections to program staff and peers, providing developmentally appropriate activities and incentives, and engaging families. Recruitment practices include using peers and staff as recruiters, using organizational relationships, and matching program attributes to youth needs. These strategies may be associated with engagement and/or participation frequency, though more research is needed.

The study found that the same five program features and strategies were significant in understanding how programs retain middle and high school youth, yet program leaders reported that there are also important differences geared toward meeting the needs of each age group.

The factors that were quantitatively linked to retention were the same across the two age groups—keeping informed about youth participants’ lives, providing many leadership opportunities, and the presence of certain structural features. However, our interviews with the 28 high-participation programs allowed us to better understand how these and other practices manifested themselves differently when working with middle or high school youth. Successful middle school programs give youth opportunities to interact with peers, create structures and routines to make youth feel comfortable and safe, and take advantage of their participants’ willingness to try new things, particularly through peer interaction. High school programs focus their programming more on providing formal and informal opportunities to explore and prepare for college and other postgraduation plans; giving youth more responsibility through job-like programming, apprenticeships, and mentoring; and offering the content and the particular skills older teens want to learn.

City-level OST initiatives employ a set of common recruitment and retention supports, but it is less clear that these efforts have made a difference in programs’ ability to recruit or retain older youth.

City initiatives provide a set of services to support participation: engaging in citywide recruitment efforts, coordinating information about programs across the city and helping programs network, collecting and using data on OST programs, supporting quality improvement efforts, and providing professional development and technical assistance to programs. They are also beginning to foster relationships with school districts and to work with families on a citywide basis. Based on city-level respondents’ reports, these efforts may be increasing recruitment and participation at the city level.

The data collected for this study, however, provided little evidence that accessing these city-level supports (which were deemed useful by the programs surveyed) was directly related to the retention rates of individual programs. Helping programs to network, providing training in youth engagement, and helping with evaluation were three of the supports used by the greatest number of programs surveyed. Both high- and lower-retention programs, however, reported similar patterns of use of these and many other supports that they were asked about on the survey. In two cases where there were differences, it was the lower-retention programs that were more likely to use the supports.

In addition, programs reported that being part of a city-level initiative created new challenges having to do with data management, program competition, and tying participation numbers to quality within a high-stakes funding environment.


Our findings can help programs move toward a more nuanced approach to recruiting and retaining older youth and help cities understand their role in supporting participation; the preceding chapters of this report document the most successful strategies used by programs and cities for doing so. In addition, these findings have implications for future investment and policy decisions about OST programming for older youth. Therefore, we offer a set of implications aimed at key decision makers—city leaders, funders, and others—whose goal is to continue to improve access to and participation in OST programs as part of their overall efforts to support learning and development and to create pathways of opportunity for older youth.

The program practices that distinguish programs that achieve high rates of retention among older youth from those that do not can help guide the actions of program directors and city leaders as they try to improve participation within a context of limited resources.

Our findings about the two practices that set high-retention programs apart—providing many leadership opportunities to youth in the programs and having staff members keep informed about youth outside programs in several ways—can give other programs an idea of where to direct scarce resources. Because we know these practices support retention, city initiatives can target professional development and technical assistance efforts to ensure that these practices are implemented effectively.

The other practices that high-retention programs use, even though they did not prove to be significant in the regression analysis, warrant further attention. 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.”

Cities should consider offering a variety of specialized activities for high school youth.

Choice is an important program component and a key feature of youth development, but it seems to matter in different ways for middle school and high school programs. Our interviews with program staff suggested that youth become more focused in their interests as they move into high school, which often means that they are in more specialized or single-focus programs. As a result, while activity choice within programs is developmentally appropriate for middle and high school students, high school students may also benefit from choice across a variety of more specialized programs. Cities can work toward this objective either by providing programs with funding to add specialized activities or by creating a variety of specialized OST opportunities for high school youth. In either case, cities should ensure that these opportunities are distributed across the city and create data systems to track youth participation and retention across a set of more specialized programs.

OST programs’ attention to developmental changes can support continuing youth engagement in OST programs.

Understanding developmental growth can help programs retain youth longer as well as support their participants’ transition from middle school to high school. High-retention high school program providers reported that their participants want programming to help them meet concrete goals, such as taking the SAT. Middle school programs reported that, particularly around eighth grade, youth stop attending because they want a program that feels “older.” OST programs can use this finding as an opportunity to create programming for eighth and possibly ninth graders that includes more responsibility and skills aimed at having a successful ninth-grade year. Cities can support these efforts by bringing OST providers and school staff together to create curricula for transition programs and establish a team approach to the transition. By supporting youth in transition from middle to high school, this collaborative effort could lower the dropout rates for particular schools.

Family engagement matters for older youth participation.

Program and city-level respondents alike clearly understand and value family engagement as a strategy to recruit and retain older youth, but are challenged as to how to implement effective family engagement strategies. Further, though family engagement practices were not statistically related to retention, high-retention programs in this study reported using more strategies to engage families than did lower-retention programs. Our findings have implications for city-level professional development efforts, which could be designed to include training on working with families. They also have implications for recruitment strategies, which should include reaching out to families in a variety of ways to persuade them of the value of OST participation for older youth.

Supporting school–program partnerships can help recruitment efforts.

Initiatives are in a strong position to influence and advocate for partnerships between school and district leaders and OST program leaders. They can increase youth access to programs by actively supporting the establishment and development of these partnerships. The stronger the partnerships between programs and schools, the more energy they can invest in targeted recruitment fairs and strategic marketing efforts during and outside of the school day. City-level initiatives can support partnerships not only by linking and connecting schools with OST providers, but also by helping programs and schools develop mutually beneficial goals and expectations; streamlined tools for data sharing; and clear, two-way channels of communication regarding students.

Resources for organizational capacity are important to support participation.

Our findings suggest that high-retention programs have strong organizational capacity and sound program management. These programs’ staff members have time to go the extra mile, attend meetings and plan programming, network with other providers and schools, and attend professional development opportunities. In fact, many of the programs selected for our in-depth study were supported by large OST intermediaries (such as Beacon initiatives and Boys & Girls Clubs) that provide this kind of capacity building. These findings suggest that investments in direct service alone are necessary but not sufficient to improve retention, and that resources should be allocated to sufficiently support organizational development.

Improved data-based decisions can improve participation.

Cities use data in multiple ways to support participation, including data about location of and access to programs, where underserved youth live, participation rates, and quality across the initiatives. Overall, programs reported that the city-level supports that enabled them to obtain and use information were helpful for improving recruitment and retention; however, they also reported challenges related to data collection and use that cities need to address. Initiatives can work, for example, to ensure that data collection and databases are supporting programs’ work and that programs are spending their time managing data in ways that are helpful for participation and are not sapping organizational resources. City initiatives can support programs’ understanding and use of participation data in order to improve recruitment and retention. The next step in the coordination of data is to link OST data to other data systems, including those of schools, to develop a more comprehensive understanding of participation and outcomes across all the supports, including schools, available to youth in the city.

City-level initiatives should work with programs for older youth to learn how to better support retention goals.

All of the cities in our study employ city-level supports to improve access to and sustained participation in OST programs; few of these strategies, however, appeared targeted toward the participation of older youth in particular. Rather, they were strategies that were part of their overall initiative-building efforts to support the quality and sustainability of OST programs. Although cities reported using strategies that directly addressed recruitment, such as social marketing, most of the strategies they employed addressed retention only indirectly. Further, none of these strategies supported high-retention programs’ participation goals in a statistically significant way. Therefore, applying what we have learned about the high-retention programs in our study—and with the understanding that recruitment and retention are two sides of the same coin—it is important for cities to strengthen their recruitment and retention efforts, and find out from programs what is needed to promote the sustained participation of older youth.

Concluding Thoughts

This research study has enabled us to identify a set of program characteristics that are important for retaining older youth, as well as a set of commonly used recruitment and retention practices that merit further investigation. We have focused our attention on older youth because middle school and high school youth in underserved areas need meaningful opportunities to find their individual pathways, stay engaged in school, and work toward college or other postsecondary education, all of which participation in a strong OST program can support. Our study results underscore the importance of strategic investments to increase and improve youth participation in quality OST programs as a way to support older youth on their pathways to success.

OST programs are increasingly part of an expanded learning approach to education, given the vital role that they can play in getting and keeping youth on trajectories of positive learning and development. Building on recent public- and private-sector investments and interest in expanding learning opportunities that encompass out-of-school time and summer learning experiences, it is more important and relevant than ever to deepen and refine our understanding of how to promote the sustained engagement of older youth in OST programs.

< < Previous | Next > >