From Low-Skilled to College-Ready: Building Pathways for All Youth Who Drop Out- Part 4

Walking across bridge
Walking across bridge

This is a guest post by Peter Kleinbard. It is the fourth in a series on dropout reengagement drawn from the case studyFor Young Adults Who Drop Out: Pathways Or Merely Stops Along The Way?

“It is not a time like when I was a teenager I could go to McDonald’s … impress a manager, fill out the application, and I had a job. …But now…I have to consistently show [youth] they can’t get discouraged. They still have to keep trying... And that’s my fear. Frustration and despair.” -Ralph (Counselor for Site B).

Ralph’s comment highlights the heightened risks for young adults who have dropped out in today’s difficult job market and the importance of helping them, not only to get a job, but to avoid the consequences of “frustration and despair” that can lead to high-risk behavior. This post, the last of a series, focuses on how to identify the elements that build high-quality programs.

Outcomes, such as employment and postsecondary placements, are necessary when assessing the quality of programs, but they are not adequate. Given that programs have different approaches to selecting participants and reporting results, outcomes will have different meanings about effectiveness. A site that chooses to work with youth who have serious obstacles to success may be doing a good job even though it may not produce as many outcomes or as rapidly as one that works with those who are nearly job-ready.

In assessing programs, much depends also on the purposes of the organization making the assessment. Those seeking to build the field – to improve opportunities for young adults in their city or region area – will want to extract lessons from the operation of a program for wider application, rather than merely counting results. When this is the objective, it is important to look broadly and thoughtfully at how programs actually work.

When I assess programs as a funder or program manager, I begin by identifying elements that I can readily observe: Does the number of young adults present match the number the program claims to serve? Do participants attend designated activities and do they participate actively? Do staff members demonstrate by their activities and comment on engagement with participants?

Do program leaders state clearly the relationship between what the site offers and how participants are expected to benefit from it? Their ideas should be consistent with what we know about what works for young adults. (See, for example, The National Employment Coalition’s PepNet site.) Often, “youth development” is cited as an approach. What does that mean? It means combining caring support with high expectations, and assuring that young people have a voice in setting their goals and assessing the program. Staff and participants should express awareness that these ideas are present in the program and that they experience them.

Support should be reflected in how frequently and the manner in which staff speak with youth who are on their caseloads. Public/Private Ventures, a national nonprofit organization, explained in their research that across all ages and program types, supportive relationships with staff appear to be the most important reason youth stay in programs.

Students should be able to state their goals and say where they stand in their quest to achieve them. They must trust that their aspirations and feelings are understood and responded to by staff.

The program structure – for example, a sequence of increasingly demanding classes and training experiences- must reinforce good practices such as regularly scheduled assessments to determine whether youth can ascend to more demanding classes and/or work experiences as they gain skills and understanding.

While most programs have databases, utilizing them to help guide and improve program activities can be uneven. An observer should ask: Is staff updating information about student attendance and scores, and are there counselor notes that highlight growth and emerging issues? Do staff and leaders consult and use this information in their work with participants?

Coherence: It is important that young adults get the same messages from all staff and that everyone is pushing in the same direction. To assure that this occurs, staff members who interact with the same young person must consult among themselves so that there is a common understanding and approach to addressing problems and supporting strengths. In Afterschool Centers and Youth Development, authors B.J. Hirsch, N.L. Deutsch, and D. L. DuBois describe Collective Mentoring – the idea is that all staff working with the same young person consider themselves responsible for his/her progress and consult regularly. In my observations, the ability of staff to interact face-to-face on a regular schedule increased the depth and frequency of consultation about participants.

Leadership: Considering limited space, I will not address the ways that leaders contribute to program quality, nor the role of hiring, orientation and supervision practices. However, these issues are explored at length in the program descriptions in the full paper.

About the Author: Peter Kleinbard is a graduate of Yale University. From 2001 until 2010, he was executive director of the Youth Development Institute, a national intermediary based in New York City. He also founded the Youth Transition Funders, an affinity group for foundations. To comment on this blog or related issues, write: peterkleinbard@verizon.net. .

Peter Kleinbard
Executive Director of the Youth Development Institute