Reading Between the Lines

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Over the past few months I have amassed a stack of newspaper articles about youth - not so much by design as by lack of cleanliness. Some of the saves, like the Jan. 16 New York Times Magazine feature, "Schools are not the Answer," were no-brainers. Any good youth advocate would frame the cover based on the title alone. Others, however, were less obvious:

"The Busing Stops Here: Two families, one school and the future of desegregation," (Jan. 30, Washington Post Magazine), "Giving a Jump Start into Young Adulthood: After-school mentoring program targets girls from high-crime areas" (Jan. 12, Takoma Park Gazette, Maryland), "Third Grade: Dispatches from childhood's last frontier," (March 19, Washington Post Magazine), "Boot Camps: An Idea Whose Time Came and Went" (Jan. 2, New York Times), and "Getting Inside a Teen Brain" (Feb. 28, Newsweek).

This pile tells several important stories. First, mainstream media does cover youth issues. The coverage is not all negative: It reflects concern about young people's development and provides summaries of important debates about effective strategies. Second, schools get much deeper and more consistent coverage than non-school youth programs, which are more likely to be in feature sections and less likely to include interviews with experts or report on relevant trends, research or policies. Third, the media and (perhaps by extension) the public does seem to have an appreciation for the complexities and challenges of development. There are discussions about the impact of family and community, the importance of dance and sports, and the developmental shifts that occur as children mature.

But the coverage reveals some of this country's blind spots as well. "Schools are not the Answer" offers depressingly cumulative evidence of the limited ability of schools - even good schools - to compensate for the negative effects of family and community among the poor. The article is sobering. But the solutions offered are thin. It is not until page six of eight that a hint of intervention is offered in the form of a tale about Impact, a Head Start program that is "not so much a preschool as a multi-purpose social-service agency, offering year-round, all-day child care from birth, adult literacy programs, episodic heath care ... for pregnant teenagers." Impact succeeds, author James Traub suggests, because it "makes a far more ambitious attempt to offer itself as a kind of alternative community." The price is more than double that of a typical Head Start program. But it is an expense, Traub argues, that the U.S. should pay.

Impact sounds good. But toddlers grow up. What solutions are offered for school-age children and teens? If "ghetto children need an enveloping environment that is secure and nourishing, as the streets and often the home itself are not," and if "school is not enveloping enough," what is the solution? Here's where Traub veers from his otherwise straight arrow thinking. "There's a strong argument for universally available after-school activities. No less important would be the restoration of the web of church, community and police-sponsored programs."

That was it. No examples, no statistics, no promising interventions from the laboratories of the top universities. The challenge of creating enveloping environments for children and youth who must traverse the streets between family and school alone is brushed off in a few lines. The lessons and successes of those who work in communities to change the odds for older children and youth are not picked up on the radar screens of those looking for scalable solutions to poverty.

Youth Today (March 2000) made light of the creation of new National Academy of Sciences Committee on Community-Level Youth Programming, suggesting that researchers have been slow to come to the realization that there is life (and impact) beyond schools. Slow or not, this is a committee whose work is desperately needed. Whatever the final assessment of the current status of community level programs for youth, young people will be better off if this august body succeeds in articulating, with some authority, the need for such programs' existence.

Karen Pittman is chairman of Youth Today's board of directors and senior vice president of the International Youth Foundation. Contact: