Enhancing A New Paradigm For The New Millennium

By: Peter A. Witt Issue: Sports Section: Collaborator Profile

Providing Quality Out-of-School-Time Services


Youth are our future! Thus, it is important to invest in young people as they move towards becoming fully functioning adults. While the educational system is critical to helping young people fully develop their potential, what young people do during out-of-school-time (OST) is also critical to their development. Specifically, what are the supports, opportunities, programs and services (SOPS) that can contribute to helping young people grow to become fully functioning adults? For the purposes of this article, a fully functioning adult is one that has developed the knowledge, values, attitudes, skills, and behaviors necessary to a) function in the world of work; b) form meaningful and productive relationships with other adults; and c) be a good community citizen.

First, it is critical to understand that OST programs are far more important than “keeping kids busy and off the streets” or simply viewed as “fun and games.” While having fun is an important hook for drawing youth into constructive engagement in OST activities, and keeping kids off the streets where they might get into trouble are important, there is much more possible through the involvement of young people in meaningful activities with caring adults.

To see the importance of OST programs, it is critical to understand a fundamental change in the rationale for youth services among service providers and funders over the past 15 or so years. Until recently, the rationale for a lot of programs was to eradicate behavioral problems like dropping out of school, using drugs, or getting pregnant. This was a deficit-based approach to a service provision with the goal being to decrease negative outcomes. However, the question arose, if an individual is not undertaking negative behaviors, is this enough to move them towards the development of the positive traits necessary to be successful? Thus, if one is not dropping out of school, does that imply engagement in school and undertaking the types of learning necessary to be successful in later life? The answer is obviously “no.” Karen Pitman of the Forum for Youth Investment summed up this line of thinking with her phrase, “Problem free is not fully prepared.”

So, how do we move from a sole reliance on conceptualizing youth services as “problem reduction” to one that encompasses a problem remediation and positive development stance? In other words, what would the parameters of a fully prepared approach look like, especially as these apply to OST settings such as those offered by youth sports organizations, parks and recreation departments or non-profit organizations such the Boys and Girls Clubs?

There now exists a rich conceptual underpinning for understanding how to promote positive development. For example, the Search Institute has identified 40 assets that are critical to young people avoiding negative behaviors and undertaking positive ones. Their list includes both external assets (e.g., the availability and involvement of an adult mentor in a young person’s life) and internal assets (e.g., decision making or resistance skills). Others have talked about Protective Factors or elements in a young person’s life that enable them to be resilient in the face of adversity. Quality schools and positive OST SOPS have been noted as crucial. This type of research has been based on looking at young people who grow up in difficult settings, yet manage to grow into fully functioning adults, while some of their peers do not. How did they become successful (resilient) in the face of adversity? The answers to this question help us develop quality OST programs for young people in the future.

The shift to a more developmental approach is moving services “back to the future” as envisioned by Jane Adams in the late 19th century. She helped create Chicago’s Hull House as a multi-service 'community' center incorporating education, health, family services and recreation in a single complex. Today, we include well-rounded youth program elements such as sports, the visual and performing arts, outdoor/adventure activities, leadership development activities, after-school tutoring, community service involvement, and job training. Agencies that don’t conceptualize themselves as part of an overall system to meet youths’ needs are likely to position themselves as peripheral elements in the overall system, marginalizing their potential contribution to alleviating problems and enhancing development, thus decreasing the likelihood of enhanced funding.

Changing the Mission

Changing from an orientation that emphasizes the negative to one that focuses on the positive may require that we rethink our casting of young people as being at-risk.

Changing from an orientation that emphasizes the negative to one that focuses on the positive may require that we rethink our casting of young people as being at-risk. While the political process operates best when it can throw money at problems and characterize individuals as needy or at-risk, a more productive terminology would encompass seeing all young people as having potential and as being of promise. Even though youth may come from high risk circumstances, given the right combination of SOPS, they may still grow into fully functioning adults. Our news media needs to tell stories of the positive elements that are active in young people’s lives and the resiliency young people show everyday even in the face of extreme risks.

OST programs have responded to this challenge by moving beyond fun as the goal to using fun as the hook to drive program involvement. They have created safe places for youth as a platform to launch engaging programs that can lead young people toward a fully functioning adulthood. The following are some of the changes taking place in developing a workable OST service model that can contribute to overall youth development.

Building Relationships

The goal of serving youth is shifting from the simple provision of activities to seeing activities as settings or means through which relationships between leaders and youth can be established. The emphasis is continuing to shift to mentoring and establishing long-term, consistent adult-youth relationships that are the essential catalyst for behavioral development and change. Successful mentoring is dependent on moving away from short-term programs to programs that are continuous and long-term. Thus, for example, a one-day per week basketball league offered over eight weeks or a one-week camping/outdoor recreation adventure will have little or no long-term impact on behavior unless they are elements of a comprehensive year-round integrated effort.

Expanding Who Defines Needs and Plans Services

There is increased emphasis on developing a community wide plan for OST programs. Communities such as Boston, Chicago and New York have high level commitments through the Mayor’s Office or the School District to assess community resources for OST programs, and implement plans to fill gaps in service provision (e.g., by area, program type, or demographic.)

In addition, youth, parents, and other community members are increasingly being recognized as partners in the process of identifying both the needs of youth, and the SOPS through which needs should be met, rather than these decisions being made exclusively by OST professionals or volunteers. The role of youth summits, councils and committees is also becoming more prominent. These shifts are designed to fully recognize the value of empowerment and consultation.

Segmenting Markets

In many communities, teens have become more vocal about the need for “places of their own” (note the similarity to the development of senior centers and day-care centers). The emergence of teen centers, often run for and by youth, is a testament to the recognition that process and involvement are important to youth development.

Empowering teens helps overcome their feelings of helplessness, alienation, and disconnectedness from society and its expectations and standards.

In a number of cases, teens have been asked to grow very quickly through assuming a number of childrearing responsibilities especially in families where the parent(s) has to work. Teens need time and places where they can “just be kids” and deal with their own developmental needs. Thus, there is increased recognition that separate programs, with companion efforts for their younger siblings, might meet this need. Differences in developmental needs of boys and girls are also being recognized through separate programming. At the same time, efforts have been made, beginning with the implementation of Title IX to expand opportunities for girls, particularly in providing access and support for participation in sports activities.

Financing Program Efforts

Much of the funding for OST programs is short-term, relatively unstable and often confined to narrowly defined programs. However, funding needs to be continuous and support more than the start-up and demonstration phases of programs. Youth are adversely impacted by unstable funding (especially in a bad economy) because it engenders their distrust of involvement with caring adults and programs. The withdrawal of funding when trust and a mentoring relationship have been established becomes another broken promise in their lives. How many times has government or foundation funding been for a demonstration project, with the expectation that someone else will pick up the funding after the initial funding period has ended? This process does not develop the kind of stable programs necessary to demonstrate our long-term commitment to the full development of our young people.

Other funding issues include the inadequate remuneration of youth workers. Low pay, often for part-time, and seasonal positions leads to high turnover rates and the disruption of mentoring relationships. The national movement to raise teachers’ salaries has not extended to other professionals working with youth, thus relegating many youth workers to second class status. Too often the best face-to-face workers have to be promoted to managerial positions in order to secure salary increases. Too many youth workers quit the field when they are confronted with the need to choose between their idealism and the reality of earning a higher salary to support their own families.

Evaluating Program Outcomes

To date, program evaluation has been largely focused on determining program attendance and user satisfaction. However, funders of youth programs are more concerned with program quality and outcomes. The critical questions are not "How many were there?” but “What happened to each of the specific children as a result of their participation?” and “What return did the community receive on its investment of resources in this program?” As a result, means are being developed to meet funders’ expectations that both individual capacities to achieve the status of being a fully functioning adult are improved and risk behaviors decreased.

Measuring program quality is also becoming a bigger issue. If SOPS are to be offered at a high level it will be necessary to demonstrate that programs are using best practices and are in a mode of continuous improvement. The key questions include: are young people physically and psychologically safe during their participation in a program? Are programs being planned and implemented using identified youth program best practices? Are sports coaches qualified to provide positive leadership for young people? And, are the facilities well-designed and functional to the intended program purposes?

Getting from Here to There

The youth development movement is growing, with strong involvement from schools, voluntary sector agencies, the police, and health and social service organizations.

OST programs are positioned to make substantial shifts in the public perception of their value and contributions as key elements in the process of enabling young people to grow up to be fully functioning adults. Both youth and society are generally all the ultimate winners in this endeavor.

Peter A. Witt is a Professor and the Bradberry Recreation and Youth Development Chair, Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M University in College Station, TX 77843-2261. Contact Peter at 409-845-7325or via E-mail at pwitt@tamu.edu.