Study Isolates Key Factors in Attracting Teenagers to After-School Programming and Retaining Them

April 29, 2010


Contact: HFRP: Carly Bourne, 617-496-8540
Public/Private Ventures: Laura Johnson, 212-822-2401
The Wallace Foundation: Lucas Held, 212-251-9782

April 29, 2010 — Five key features characterize after-school programs that succeed in recruiting and retaining teenagers, according to a new study by researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Harvard Family Research Project and Public/Private Ventures, a national nonprofit organization.

The report, Engaging Older Youth: Program and City-level Strategies to Support Sustained Participation in Out-of-School Time, commissioned by The Wallace Foundation, is one of the most comprehensive studies to date looking at an area that is little explored but of critical importance to those concerned about the wellbeing of middle- and high-school students, especially those from low-income communities. Researchers believe that high-quality programming could help put these students on a path to success in school and life, but many out-of-school-time providers have found it difficult to attract and enroll teenagers and then get them to participate in activities regularly.

The study included information from close to 200 out-of-school-time programs in six cities, in part to find out what programs that successfully recruited and retained teenagers had in common. Using statistical techniques, the researchers compared higher-retention programs with lower-retention programs and isolated five factors that distinguished the higher-retention group:

  • A larger number of leadership opportunities offered to participants,
  • A larger number of ways in which program staffers kept informed about the teens’ lives,
  • An annual enrollment of 100 or more,
  • Location in a setting other than a school, and
  • The practice of holding regular staff meetings to discuss program issues.

The report is available free of charge at:,, or

“With the Elementary and Secondary Education Act currently up for reauthorization, these findings shed light on an important aspect of older student success,” said Heather Weiss, Ed.D., Harvard Family Research Project founder and director. “Teenagers tend to know what they want to learn, and it is particularly interesting that programs that helped teenagers develop leadership skills were able to retain youth longer. Community-based after-school programs also have the power to retain teenagers—even those who may be disengaging from school—by offering a separate space where they can pursue their interests.”

Jean Grossman, senior fellow at Public/Private Ventures, commented that “one of the big takeaways from this study was how proactive programs that kept youth coming for 12 months or more were at meeting their participants’ real needs. Staff spent time discussing program issues to get them right, provided developmentally appropriate opportunities—such as higher levels of program input and leadership—and went the extra mile to stay informed about youth’s lives outside the programs.”

The study found that the five factors were significant in retaining participants regardless of whether they were in middle- or high-school. But program staffers interviewed for the report also highlighted important differences in programming for middle- and high-school students. Successful middle school programs gave students opportunities to interact with peers; created structures and routines to make participants feel comfortable and safe; and took advantage of the participants’ willingness to try new things, particularly through peer interaction. High school programs focused more on providing formal and informal opportunities for students to explore and prepare for college and other post-graduation activities; gave youth more responsibility through job-like programming, apprenticeships, and mentoring; and offered more targeted content focused on the skills older teens wanted to learn.

The researchers also identified a set of retention and recruitment practices that, although not statistically related to retention, were consistently reported by program providers as being important in engaging older youth. These included: fostering a sense of community through connections to program staff and peers, providing developmentally appropriate activities and incentives, and engaging families.

In addition, the report details the influence on the programs of initiatives to build citywide systems of out-of-school time programming. These efforts bring together and assist the work of the various public and private organizations involved in providing out-of-school activities, and the report identifies the types of services likely to help in boosting teen participation. The study found these city-level supports especially useful to smaller OST programs.

“We think the report findings are relevant not only to providers who are serving middle- and high-school students, but also to cities that are considering ways to support and coordinate after-school programming,” said Nancy Devine, director of communities at The Wallace Foundation.

The six cities in the study were: Chicago, Cincinnati, New York City, Providence, San Francisco, and Washington, DC.


Since 1983, Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) has helped stakeholders develop and evaluate strategies to promote the well-being of children, youth, families, and their communities. HFRP works primarily in the areas of out-of-school-time programming and family and community engagement in education. Underpinning all of HFRP’s work is a commitment to evaluation for strategic decision-making, learning, and accountability.

Public/Private Ventures (P/PV) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization with offices in Philadelphia, New York City and Oakland. For over 30 years, P/PV has tackled critical challenges facing low-income communities—by seeking out and designing innovative programs, rigorously testing them and promoting solutions proven to work.

The Wallace Foundation commissioned this report as part of its effort to help develop lessons relevant to cities on how to build systems that coordinate and support high-quality out-of-school-time programming. As part of its out-of-school-time initiative, launched in 2003, Wallace granted funds to support after-school system-building initiatives in: Boston; Chicago; New York City; Providence; and Washington, DC. This investment was designed to help create citywide system-building efforts that could advance three interrelated goals for the out-of-school-time field: improving program quality, making programs accessible to youth who need them most, and improving youth participation so more children can realize benefits.

The Wallace Foundation is an independent, national foundation dedicated to supporting and sharing effective ideas and practices that expand learning and enrichment opportunities for all people. The Foundation maintains an online library of lessons about what it has learned, including knowledge from its current efforts aimed at: strengthening educational leadership to improve student achievement; enhancing out-of-school-time learning opportunities; and building appreciation and demand for the arts.