… Attract High Schoolers to After-School Programs

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Persuading high school teens to participate in after-school programs is not an exact science, and it just gets more difficult as the youths get older. The size and reputation of a program influence the recruitment strategy, as does the available funding. Extensive recruiting efforts may be costly, or they may depend mostly on word of mouth. But they all have the same purpose: to engage as many youth as possible in order to improve their current academic standing and their whole future.

Youth Today noted the lack of national data on teen participation in after-school programs in a 2004 article (See “Attracting Teens” at http://www.youthtoday.org), and today the research base supporting effective methods of pulling in high schoolers remains thin. An April 2009 Out-of-School-Time Policy Commentary by the Forum for Youth Investment suggested that the lack of national research, along with numerous recent grant opportunities, have led to a period of experimentation. While it is too early to assess the results of these techniques, we can offer a glimpse of their recruitment methods.

One Land One People Skyline Youth Center, a fledgling program in Oakland, Calif., lacks the resources and long-term reputation of more established programs, so it relies on creativity to recruit high school students. Though the program has just four full-time staff members, its collaborative director, Tony Douangviseth, said that doesn’t mean he can’t seek out the help of others who already have active roles in the lives of high school students.

“Coaches of teams can help bring athletes to tutoring, and they can also motivate the athletes to engage in tutoring. Parents can help provide rides, academic support and food,” Douangviseth said, explaining the program’s overarching recruitment philosophy: Involve everyone.

After School Matters, an umbrella organization for hundreds of after-school programs in Chicago, claims that its reputation alone has helped recruit high school participants. While not every program has such recognition, After School Matters outreach workers employ strategies at recruitment expos that are widely applicable. In addition to setting up shop at high-traffic areas within schools, such as cafeterias during lunch period, the recruiters are sure to emphasize to students the high level of responsibility that the program places on them. This is based on the belief that students respond well when they are trusted. The expos are also an opportunity to inform students about the benefits of participation, including the increased likelihood of going to college and developing a career.

New York’s Cypress Hills Educational Choice Center takes a recruiting approach focused squarely on involving the students themselves. Lowell Herschberger, the program’s director of career and education services, said current student members help design the outreach strategy from the early planning stages all the way through to the execution. This includes having students create posters, make presentations to their classmates and hold one-on-one meetings with former students. Five years in, the results are starting to take form: The center served more than 10 times as many students last year as it did in its first year of existence.

Despite the approach, many at-risk high school students are not interested in what these programs have to offer and resist almost any effort to draw them in. That doesn’t mean after-school programs are giving up on them; the programs say they are just employing a few new and a few tried-and-true tricks – at least until research in the field catches up.