Attracting Teens

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*Editor's Note: The last name of the person identified in this story as "Albert K." was printed in full in the published version of this story. The change was made on the Web version at the young man's request.

Brooklyn, N.Y.—Over the past decade, Americans have awakened to the need for more and better after-school programs. The federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers program has mushroomed from a $750,000 afterthought in 1995 to a $1 billion per year national investment. Los Angeles, New York, Baltimore, San Diego and countless other cities have launched ambitious campaigns to extend after-school opportunities to more youth.

Yet if you peek into most after-school programs, one group is conspicuously underrepresented: teenagers.

“There’s a consensus in the field that by age 12, kids’ participation in organized programs drops off steeply,” notes Joan Wynn of the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago.

While no national data are available on teen participation, more than half the youth in a nationwide YMCA-sponsored survey in 2001 said they wished more after-school programs were available in their neighborhoods. The National Academy of Sciences concluded in 2002 that “adolescents from low- to moderate-income working families are least likely to have access to

The programming shortfall is especially crucial for at-risk teens who are struggling academically, warns Princeton University youth scholar Jean Baldwin Grossman. “You cannot participate on a school-sponsored team or a school-sponsored extracurricular activity if your grades are below a certain average,” Grossman notes. “And so exactly the kinds of kids – the more at-risk kids [which that] adult connection and extra support might help – are the ones pushed out” of the activities.

In 1998, the New York-based Charles Hayden Foundation set out to close this teen services gap and answer a crucial question: Can traditional facility-based youth organizations attract, retain and effectively serve underprivileged and disconnected teens? In a three-year demonstration project, Hayden provided $2.8 million for Boys & Girls Clubs in Boston and New York City to hire more staff and develop new programs to reach previously underserved teens.

“The clubs were successful,” declares a Hayden-funded evaluation released last year by Public/Private Ventures (P/PV), the social policy think tank based in Philadelphia. “They drew large numbers of teens, involved them in a variety of activities, and provided them with emotional support, leadership opportunities and programming.”

But the report, “Increasing Opportunities for Older Youth in After School Programs,” notes that “the efforts were not without challenges.”

The body of the report, coupled with visits to the Boston and New York clubs, reveals that the clubs did attract hundreds of new teen members. The agencies forged close relationships with most of them and convinced many to continue showing up.

But the clubs were less successful in developing program activities that were interesting to teens. Several clubs suffered heavy staff turnover that undercut the success of their programs. And since the Hayden grants expired late in 2001, the clubs have been only marginally successful in sustaining their enhanced teen program efforts.

“Can [Boys & Girls] clubs reach older youth, and youth who have issues, and youth who haven’t been participants in clubs before, or have disengaged from clubs?” asks Amy Arbreton, a co-author of the P/PV report. “Can they change their programming? Can they change their approach?

“The answer was: Yes, they can. But it takes staffing and resources. And it takes a whole cultural shift on the part of the club that took a few years for both clubs.”

New York: Tough Cases

Before the Hayden project, the Boys & Girls Clubs in Boston and New York operated multiple facilities in low-income neighborhoods (five in Boston, eight in New York), and both agencies had longstanding teen programs. However, they both served many more elementary school children than teenagers, and they devoted the bulk of their staff to the younger children.

In New York, the Madison Square Boys & Girls Clubs used its $1.5 million in Hayden funds to attract high-risk teens who typically would not participate in the clubs: youth who were failing in school, involved with drugs, or tangled up in gangs or delinquency.

“Traditionally, we may work [with] some of those kids within our model, but generally speaking, that’s not the case,” says Steven Melton, associate executive director of Madison Square. “The older teens that we have in the clubs [are] usually kids who are going to junior high school or high school, and they’re generally not getting into trouble or abusing drugs.”

Madison Square used the Hayden funds to target youth who were “culturally different” – that is, more high-risk – says Cedric Dew, a veteran youth worker tapped to coordinate the project.

At each of three Brooklyn-based clubs participating in the project, Dew hired part-time outreach workers and a full-time guidance specialist. The outreach workers pursued a two-pronged strategy: soliciting referrals from school officials and probation officers, and offering direct outreach to youth at such hangouts as parks and street corners. Despite heavy turnover among the outreach staff, all three clubs recruited at least 50 new high-risk teens each year.

Once recruited, the teens were turned over to the guidance specialists, who interviewed each youth in depth, followed up with them at least twice a month and carried beepers so the youths could contact them around the clock.

Melton explains: “We wanted to let these kids know that ‘We really care about you. We’re really trying to help you change your behavior, help you accomplish those goals you want and see where you want to make change – if you want to make change.’ ”
The guidance specialists, who were experienced youth workers but lacked social work training, worked to acclimate project teens to the culture of the clubs and integrate them into the clubs’ regular programming.

“Their boys and girls club had been the streets,” Dew says of the youth, “so they hadn’t been conditioned to an environment like a club where you come in and take off your hat, where you come in and don’t use profanity, where you come in and respect the person at the front desk, you don’t fight. All that stuff we had to program into them.”

Boston: Holding On to Its Own

Unlike Madison Square, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston didn’t set out to reach a tougher breed of teens. Rather, it used its $1.26 million in Hayden grants to retain younger club members as they matured into adolescence.

“In Boston, moving into teen programming was a significant change for young teens – presenting them with a new and older peer group and a change in activities, staffing and structure,” P/PV found. “Instead of looking forward to teen programming, many preteens were hesitant about making the transition.”

“We felt like we didn’t have the right programming or the breadth of programming we needed for older kids,” says Jerry Steimel, vice president of operations for the Boston clubs. “We felt something was missing, and we were losing kids.”

Each of Boston’s five clubs hired two staff members to develop additional activities and offer more support for teens. The clubs also opened their doors to teens at 2 p.m. each school day, rather than at 6 p.m., as they had done previously.

To reduce the anxiety of club members aging into teen programs, staff took transitioning youth on tours of the clubs’ teen centers. And three clubs began to invite 12-year-olds into the clubs’ teen centers periodically, to interact with teen members and get acclimated.

As in New York, the Boston clubs had little trouble boosting their teen membership numbers, adding 63 new teens per club the first year and 52 per club the second. (The P/PV study did not provide third-year figures.)

In both New York and Boston, P/PV surveys revealed that large majorities of the youths were looking for safe, constructive environments to help them stay out of trouble. Teens were also eager for academic help, preparation for and referrals to paying jobs, and chances to participate in other new and exciting activities.

Building Strong Bonds

While the clubs in both cities easily met their recruitment goals (the first objective of the Hayden project), their records were mixed on the project’s other goals: to retain, integrate and effectively serve these teens over time. The clubs recorded noteworthy successes, important lessons and troubling gaps.

In both New York and Boston, youth workers built close relationships with the youth who enrolled. Eighty percent of teens participating in both cities told P/PV that they knew at least one staff member they could go to for advice and support. Three-fourths said at least one staff member understood their interests and knew how they were faring in school, and 80 percent knew a staff member who could help them find a job.

For some teens, these relationships made a crucial difference.

Albert K., a long and lanky 19-year-old, figures that were it not for Shatane Porter, the guidance coordinator in Madison Square’s East Flatbush clubhouse in Brooklyn, he’d be dead or in jail, like most of his former “Crips” gang mates. Instead, he’s a soft-spoken sophomore attending Berkeley College in Manhattan.

Albert K. was referred to the club by a probation officer after getting arrested for assaulting a student in a high school classroom. “When he came in here, his way of dealing with things was through violence,” Porter recalls. “Albert came because it was his choice between coming here or going to jail.”

After he got into an altercation on his first day at the club, Albert K. recalls, “Shatane pulled me aside. He said if I wanted to stay here, I had to obey the rules. He wasn’t lenient with me, but he was straightforward. We bonded.

“I realized that there was more to life than just gangbanging and negativity. … I more or less started fading away [from the gang]. I was more and more disinterested. [Shatane] had been there and done that, and he was achieved. He was like a big brother to me, a mentor.”

A Space Challenge

Though important, one-to-one relationships with club staff weren’t enough to keep youth involved. The clubs also had to create appealing environments and offer activities that the teens found interesting.

One of the first lessons for the New York clubs involved space: “We literally had to create a fourth floor just to serve that population,” says Dew, the Madison Square project coordinator. “We had to open some rooms up and say, ‘These rooms are only for teenagers.’ If teens weren’t in them, then nobody was in them.”

This need for designated space is commonplace, says Grossman, the Princeton scholar: “As the kids get older, they don’t want to be where the younger kids are. You see a decrease in participation among the older kids, because they feel insulted to have to go where the little kids are.”

Porter, the Flatbush guidance coordinator, agrees. “Having their own area to breathe and yell, to talk about things that are relevant to them” is crucial, he says. “When you have your own space and you’re here with equal peers, you can say what you want to say and be heard. Space allows for expression.”

By the end of the three-year Hayden project, all three New York clubs had separate spaces for teens. (The Boston clubs had separate teen centers before the project began.)

For some teens, such as Eamon Miller, the clubs’ combination of safe spaces and close relationships with club staff are more than enough. Miller goes to the South Boston Boys & Girls Club every day, working as a junior counselor for younger kids in the afternoon, and then hanging out with friends until closing time at 9 p.m.

“It’s like a second home,” says Miller, who’s been going to the club since he was 8 and transitioned into the teen programs during the Hayden project. “There’s not a day that goes by that [teen director] Kate [Croteau] doesn’t come up to me and ask, ‘Hey, is everything all right? How’s it going?’ And that feels good.”

Besides, says Miller, “It’s a heck of a lot safer here than being outside.”

Battling Boredom

Most teens, however, do not attend the clubs so consistently.

At the end of the second year, just over half (58 percent) of teens recruited into the Hayden project were still enrolled. And during the third year, P/PV found, about 40 percent of the teen participants who were still enrolled attended the clubs less than once a month. Another 23 percent went one to three times per month, while 37 percent visited at least once a week.

Grossman, the Princeton scholar, contends that sporadic attendance is natural among teenagers, and even beneficial. Teens may take part-time jobs, join school-sponsored extracurricular activities or just hang out with friends.

“We want their horizons to be growing,” Grossman says. “We want them to learn how to interact in many different types of environments. ... So being in a controlled club may not be optimal for them all the time.”

But lack of attendance can also reflect a lack of stimulating programming. And in the Boys & Girls Clubs, it did. Roughly half the teens – including 59 percent of high-risk teens in New York – told P/PV that the clubs did not provide them with new and interesting activities.

The clubs enrolled many teens in programs for leadership, academic enrichment, job readiness, college preparation, athletics and computer skills. And in both cities, club leaders encouraged staff to give teens the freedom to make choices about how these programs operated and to pursue their own interests.

“One of the needs that teens have is controlling their environment,” explains Steimel of the Boston clubs. “Teens want to take responsibility for what goes on around them. They need that sense of empowerment.”

But this philosophy didn’t fully take hold, due in part to staff turnover at many of the clubs. “Significant numbers of teens reported that a lack of interesting, age-appropriate activities kept them from attending the clubs more frequently,” P/PV reported.

Linda Wiltse, vice president of teen programs for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, says that clubs throughout the nation face a similar challenge: making their teen programs flexible and creative.

“Teens are tough,” Wiltse says. “Let’s face it: They’re not as easy as some 7-year-olds who, you give them some fun things to do and be nice to them, and they’ll come every day and be happy to be there. Teens need to be asked. They need to be part of the process.

“And even in a skills-based program, you need to find ways for it to be fun and interesting. Otherwise, the kids will take a walk.”
Arbreton, co-author of the P/PV study, says that club staff “may not be as used to that or as skilled at that. [Historically], Boys & Girls Clubs have been about the places they provide for youth.” She thinks many clubs are changing. “It depends on how tied they are to the model that they’ve always had.”

Lessons Learned

By the end of the project, P/PV reports, “staff in both cities built a strong recognition of the need to constantly build and revise programming so that it will appeal to older youth.”

The P/PV report and interviews with club staff reveal that the Hayden Foundation’s investment yielded many lessons.

“It really helped us be more intentional about what we’re doing to help teens,” says Steimel, the vice president in Boston. “You’re competing with a lot more things with the older kids. They do start to feel the pull of the streets, and they’re looking for a bit more freedom. So you have to work a little harder to keep them coming back.”

Three years after the grants expired, however, Steimel admits that his clubs are struggling to sustain the progress made during the Hayden project. “When you hit hard times, sometimes you tend to pull back on the things you’ve added most recently.”

Though teen membership levels have remained high, the Boston clubs have reduced staffing in their teen centers substantially since 2001 – from four dedicated staff members per club down to 2.5.

The cutbacks have had a serious impact, says Alexa Kuzmich, 18, a member of the South Boston club since she was 6. “We used to go on trips all the time,” says Kuzmich, a junior counselor at the club. “But now, with budget cuts, there’s just no way we can pull it off.”

“A lot of kids think it’s boring down here” in the teen center, Kuzmich says. “And a lot of the kids who don’t come here are the ones who think it’s boring.”

In New York, Madison Square is still serving teens, but its special program for high-risk youth has ended. The New York clubs “were trying something that was much harder than what they were trying in Boston,” says Arbreton. “It took a lot of energy to implement, and it took them a few years to figure out how to make it work.”

Madison Square’s approach also cost more: an average of $2,200 per year per teen, compared with $500 per teen for the Boston clubs.

“It takes a lot more resources to work with these types of young people,” explains Melton, the Madison Square associate executive director.

“Nothing made us feel better than being able to pull young women, young men, from gangs – to get them out of the colors and bring them into a new gang called the Boys & Girls Club,” Melton says. “But when three years came up and the funding ended, we couldn’t find another funder to jump on board…

“Most people outside youth development don’t understand the costs involved with really doing an intervention model. It’s very people-intensive.”


“Increasing Opportunities for Older Youth in After-School Programs: A Report on the Experiences of Boys & Girls Programs in Boston and New York City”
Public/Private Ventures

Amy J.A. Arbreton
Public/Private Ventures
Lake Merritt Plaza
1999 Harrison St., Suite 1550
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 273-4600

Steven A. Melton, Associate Executive Director
Madison Square Boys & Girls Club
350 Fifth Ave., Suite 912
New York, NY 10018
(212) 760-9600

Jerry Steimel, Vice President, Operations
Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston
50 Congress Street, 7th Floor
(617) 994-4700

Jean Baldwin Grossman, Lecturer
Woodrow Wilson School
Princeton University
Princeton, NJ 08544-1013
(609) 258-6974

Is Civic Action the Answer?

In December 2003, the Innovation Center for Community & Youth Development – a Maryland-based advocacy group that began in the National 4-H Council – released a study of a 12-site youth development program for teens that revolved around “civic action.”

These programs took a very different tack from the Boston or New York Boys & Girls Clubs. Working primarily through local grass-roots groups, rather than larger youth organizations, the programs engaged underprivileged youth in projects to identify and address problems in their communities.

In Washington, teenage girls – including some foster children – helped draft new city regulations for group homes. In the Bronx, youth worked to get a vacant lot that was slated for development into a parking lot to be designated instead as a community park. In Denver, youth helped write a new school board policy on sexual harassment.

“Teens alienated from the mainstream are not attracted to the typical after-school programs and clubs,” Innovation Center President Wendy Wheeler said during an audio press conference on Jan. 28. “They are interested in joining groups that work toward social change. They simply want to be actively involved in making life better.”

“Even young people who appear most disaffected have big ideas about how to improve their neighborhoods and their lives,” Wheeler added. “If you give them a chance, they can accomplish a lot. It’s important for everywhere, but it’s especially important in underserved neighborhoods for young people who have little to do and few opportunities for leadership.”

Hanh Cao Yu, a researcher from Social Policy Research Associates in Oakland, which conducted the evaluation, told reporters that policy-makers and mainstream youth organizations (like the Boys & Girls Clubs) “absolutely need to adopt the [civic action] approach if they want to reach a larger segment of the youth population.”

Joan Wynn, a youth expert at the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, agrees that “programming for teens can’t simply be trying to engage older kids in whatever is currently provided to younger ones.”

The key, Wynn says, is to engage teens “in hands-on activities focused on issues that matter to them, where they can make a contribution that ends in a product or performance or some way of demonstrating mastery, that have high expectations and really provide sustained support over time, and where youth have a voice in making decisions, some role in leadership that isn’t simply, ‘Sit there, be passive, do your homework.’ ”

However, Jean Baldwin Grossman, a Princeton University youth scholar, warns that civic action programs are “harder to pull off than one might think, because often – and the kids smell it really quickly – it’s a pretend. There’s no real cause that’s being served. ‘We’re gonna clean up this park. We’re gonna help this organization by stuffing envelopes.’ ... The kids know they’re being used.

“If it was to have a sit-down strike in the mayor’s office, they’d be there for you in a minute. But there’s sort of a backlash amongst a lot of kids against that kind of Mickey Mouse community service.”

The study, “Lessons in Leadership: How Young People Change Their Communities and Themselves,” can be obtained from the Innovation Center at (301) 270-1700, or at