Engaging Older Youth: Program and City-Level Strategies

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 Engaging Older Youth: Program and City-Level Strategies

Out-of-school time (OST) programs represent a vital opportunity and resource for learning and development. There is growing recognition that OST is important not just for elementary school students, whose parents need supervision for their children when they are not in school, but also for middle and high school youth,i whose participation in OST programs can help keep them connected to positive role models and engaged in their education at a time when many are beginning to disengage from schools.1

The benefits of OST participation for older youth are well documented, with research indicating that participation in well-implemented OST programs and activities has the potential to support postsecondary success and a healthy adulthood. Participation is associated with a range of academic and learning-related outcomes, including improved academic achievement and graduation rates and higher rates of school attendance.2 OST participation has also been correlated with positive feelings toward school and improvement in school belonging, particularly for the oldest youth.3 Finally, OST participation bolsters social, career, and civic skills for older youth through team-building work, the development of strong relationships with adults and peers, and involvement in “prosocial” activities.4

But once older youth have enrolled in OST programs, meaningful and sustained participation is a key factor in attaining positive outcomes.5 Research suggests that when youth are engaged in programs in meaningful ways, they are likely to learn more, experience better developmental outcomes, and stay in programs longer.6 While few data are available on exactly how much participation is needed for youth to reap the benefits of OST programs, researchers and practitioners do have a sense that older youth need exposure to a range of healthy environments, including OST programs, to gain the skills necessary for a productive adulthood; duration of participation may be a critical factor in attaining positive outcomes.7

Despite the findings linking OST participation to positive outcomes, programs still struggle with how to attract and engage older youth.8 Historically, adolescent participation in OST programs has been relatively low compared with that of elementary school-aged youth.9 For example, of the youth who participate in afterschool programs, only 18 percent are in middle school and 12 percent in high school.10

Participation of older youth in OST programs plummets for a number of reasons. Adolescents have many options for how they spend their time outside of school and do not necessarily have to be involved in programs for afterschool care. Older youth have needs that are quite different from those of younger children, and many programs are ill equipped to handle developmental differences. Older youth might need to take on family responsibilities like child care, might have jobs to help family finances, or might prefer to hang out with friends.11 Older youth, particularly those at risk of becoming disconnected from school, might not want to spend any more time in the school building than they have to.12 All of these factors have implications for how to structure programs for older youth to best meet their developmental needs.

There are also real discrepancies in access to and participation in OST programs by location and socioeconomic status.13 Predictably, youth from lower-income families and neighborhoods have fewer OST opportunities than their more privileged peers, and many low-income and minority families report unmet need for high-quality and accessible programming.14 The lack of opportunity for some youth is especially problematic given our nation’s rising dropout rates. If, as research suggests, OST programs have the potential to support graduation and postsecondary success, then better access to quality OST programs may have the potential to help address educational inequalities, particularly in urban areas.

In response to the evidence pointing to the benefits of out-of-school time, coupled with the lack of access in many urban neighborhoods, many cities are creating citywide infrastructures to support networks of OST programs, with one goal being to support participation. The infrastructures across cities vary: Some take the form of OST partnerships or funding collaboratives, while others consist of departments and nonprofit intermediaries dedicated to supporting youth organizations, their staff, and the youth in the programs. In this report, we use the term “initiative” to refer to efforts to create these city-level infrastructures for OST. With support from The Wallace Foundation and other private and public dollars, these nascent OST city initiatives are attempting to build the capacity of programs to deliver better-quality programming by engaging in one or more of the following efforts: supporting professional development for providers, providing funding, implementing quality improvement efforts, establishing data-tracking systems, and connecting OST programs to one another and to other community institutions.

Research Purpose and Questions

Given the potential of city-level OST initiatives to support participation, and against the national backdrop of concern about access to the benefits of quality OST programs for older youth from disadvantaged communities, The Wallace Foundation commissioned the research study reported here. To understand how to engage older youth in meaningful ways in OST programs, this study examined the program characteristics—both program practices and structural features—associated with high participation and retention in OST programs primarily serving disadvantaged youth in six cities that have worked toward building OST initiatives.ii In particular, this report addresses how OST programs keep middle and high school youth engaged over time (i.e., the duration of participation) and how the supports that city initiatives provide can help foster youth participation, with the assumption that programs can have a potentially greater impact if they are able to work with these youth over an extended period of time.

We examined three key questions:

  1. What are the characteristics of high-participation OST programs that support sustained participation as measured by retention?
  2. How do these characteristics differ for middle school and high school youth?
  3. What strategies are city initiatives implementing to support access to programs and sustained participation, and how do OST programs perceive the usefulness of city-level strategies for achieving their participation goals?

Contributions of the Research Study

This study builds on and expands the knowledge base about older youth participation in several important ways. First, while many studies have been conducted on promising retention strategies (by this report’s authors and others), most of these have been based on a small sample of handpicked programs. This study examines the program characteristics (both program practices and structural features) of almost 200 OST programs across six diverse cities, as well as a smaller subset of programs chosen for in-depth study, in the context of a mixed-methods research design (see Chapter 1 for a description of this design). Second, while many studies recently have examined participation of older youth as a whole—middle and high school—our study compares and contrasts the program practices that are effective for each of these age groups. Given the profound developmental differences between middle school- and high school-aged youth, it is not surprising that a “one-size-fits-all” strategy does not work well. Our study points to the need for programs to take a more nuanced developmental approach to working with older youth. Finally, there is emerging knowledge, supported by The Wallace Foundation and others, on developing citywide OST initiatives, but no studies have attempted to understand the role these initiatives play in improving access to and sustained participation in individual OST programs. This study begins to explore this important topic.

As this study demonstrates, there is a set of program practices and structural features that distinguish programs that attain high rates of retention among older youth from programs that do not: They are likely to be community-based programs that enroll a larger number of youth, offer a greater number of leadership opportunities, have more ways to keep staff informed about participants, and hold regular staff meetings to discuss program-related issues. Although we report on what city initiatives indicate they are doing to support access and sustained participation, we did not find any empirical association between city-level participation supports and higher rates of long-term retention. One reason may be that the six city initiatives examined in this report are relatively young (in existence 5 years or fewer). Another possibility is that the strategies of OST initiatives examined in this study affect other key areas of program success, such as enrollment rates, that were not the focus of this report.

Structure of the Report

Chapter 1 describes our mixed-methods research strategy, including information on sample selection and data collection and analysis. The next three chapters integrate our qualitative and quantitative findings to address our three research questions. Chapter 2 presents findings on the program characteristics of high-retention programs, as well as other commonly used program practices for sustained participation, which together illustrate how to meaningfully engage older youth in OST programs. Chapter 3 examines the differences in OST programming for middle and high school youth that correspond to developmental changes. Chapter 4 draws on information collected from our city-level respondents to present data on city-level participation strategies; it then uses interview and survey data to report on how programs perceive the value of city initiatives in supporting program participation goals. Chapter 5 concludes the report with implications of our results for future OST programming and OST initiative-building efforts.

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i. Throughout the report, "youth," "older youth," and "adolescent" are used to refer to middle and high school-aged youth.

ii. As described in Chapter 1, "high participation" was defined using each city’s management information system (MIS).