Listen to Me: Youth Share What They Want From After School Programs in New Report

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Something to Say Wallace ReportSAY Si, a San Antonio, Texas, multidisciplinary arts program, includes a line item in its budget for purchasing students’ work to hang in its building’s permanent collection. Salt Lake City, Utah, youth media arts center Spy Hop Productions reinvented one of its music programs based on input and guidance from participants, who said that CDs and a traditional record label model were out of date, and helped create a “music collective” that produces live sessions instead. Every young person involved in National Dance Institute of New Mexico (NDI-NM)’s programming performs in shows with high quality sound, lighting, costumes, live music, and choreography.

Respecting youth participants as artists, allowing them to lead and shape programming, and giving them the chance to perform publicly are all elements that youth value in arts programs when choosing how to spend their limited free time, according to a new report released today by the Wallace Foundation. “Something to Say: Success Principles for Afterschool Arts Programs from Urban Youth and Other Experts” draws on insights from more than 200 youth and parents, including photo journals from tweens that showed how they spent and made decisions about their time.

“What was really interesting about this report is that they used a supply and demand lens, taking the principles of economics and the commercial world, and applied it to the work that we all do,” said Kasandra VerBrugghen, executive director of Spy Hop Productions. VerBrugghen said that one of the paper’s most interesting findings was how much decision-making power tweens (age 10 to 13) have over their time, adding, “We know that teens have that buying power, but this report shows that’s true of tweens too.”

“Something to Say” combines youth input, expertise from arts and youth development leaders, and the work of eight exemplary arts afterschool programs (including SAY Si, Spy Hop Productions, and NDI-NM) to put forth a list of 10 principles on “how to engage and sustain young people’s interest in programs of excellence.” Although they come from the arts world, these best practices can be translated into principles relevant to any youth-serving organization, says VerBrugghen. They include:

  • Use practicing professionals as teachers and mentors; pay them for their time and support their professional development;

  • Give youth the opportunity to share their work publicly in high-quality events;

  • Use the newest technology and equipment to teach hands-on skills;

  • Encourage and support good relationships with mentors and fellow participants to create a “sense of belonging and acceptance”;

  • Hold programming in a “physically and emotionally safe” space; and

  • Engage community leaders, parents, and others in supporting the program and its participants.

VerBrugghen said the value of the report lies not just in these guiding principles, but in its descriptions of how different organizations are implementing them—practical, front line advice on “how you do it, [and] what this looks like in reality.” VerBrugghen also gave the report perhaps the strongest praise an executive director can—she’s asked all of her program staff to read it and to think about ways to use its teachings in their own work.


Lisa Pilnik is a Maryland-based freelance writer and consultant.