In Milwaukee, Youth Worker Training Pays

Milwaukee, Wis.—Wanted: Youth workers to go to school to learn how to be better youth workers. Money a problem? We’ll pay. Time a problem? Go during work hours; other staffers will cover for you. When you finish we’ll give you a raise. If you use the education we paid for to land another job, we’ll wish you luck … and offer the same deal to your replacement.

Skeptical? Then have a seat in classroom 7350 of downtown’s Plankington Building, where – seven floors above a mall and three floors above a YMCA – 18 youth workers sit at tables on a Friday morning because they were offered that deal or something like it. Today’s lesson: “the conflict cycle model,” or what to do when a kid gets in your face.

First, Norman Powell – beamed in from Eastern Kentucky University through a live TV hookup that lets him and the students watch each other – explains why they’re really here. “Anybody who gets involved in working with young people,” says the director of the Kentucky Educational Collaboration for State Agency Children, “clearly has to be trained and strongly committed to learning and developing their expertise.”

So committed are Milwaukee’s youth-serving agencies to that belief that scores of them, along with the federal government and foundations such as the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, have contributed hundreds of thousands dollars over the past 20 years for youth worker training through the Child and Youth Care Learning Center (CYCLC), based at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Some agencies even require staff to go through the program, or give them raises and bonuses of up to $500 for doing so.

The result: a passionate belief among administrators and staff that the training improves youth work, and little measurable evidence that it does.

If formalized youth worker training has an impact, it should be evident here, where the center has done it since 1979 – making it one of the nation’s oldest campus-based training programs for youth workers.

“The feedback we’re getting from our youth workers is that they are definitely benefitting from it,” says Kathie Carlson Tripp, staff development director of the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee.                         

But is youth work in this city noticeably better because so many workers – about 200 a year – go through the training? Mark Krueger, the veteran youth development proselytizer who founded and runs the CYCLC, is bullish but frank: “That’s a good question.”

It is a particularly apt question at a time of a growing push for the professionalization of the youth work field. After decades in the doldrums, training programs for youth workers are spreading around the country: the Springfield College School of Human Services (based in Massachusetts) opened a Milwaukee campus in January (its eighth); the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), which runs the Trieschman Center in Massachusetts, is involved in talks about creating regional training academies in California; and the BEST system, run by the National Training Institute for Community Youth Work, has grown from zero to 15 sites (including the CYCLC) in four years.

National youth-serving organizations like Boys Town and Girls, Inc., have their own training programs, but “there are a lot of youth workers who aren’t affiliated with these national structures,” says Jane Quinn, former Dewitt Wallace program director, now assistant executive director at New York’s Children’s Aid Society. She says programs such as the CYCLC fill a vital role in offering education to youth workers who might otherwise have no access to training, save occasional in-house sessions at their agencies.

Quinn is “tremendously optimistic” that such youth worker training will spread, as are others. “The current workforce crisis can be used to energize these initiatives,” says Floyd Alwon, director of professional development for the CWLA’s National Center for Consultation and Professional Development, based at Trieschman. “Agencies are desperate to recruit and retain workers, to the point where they are willing to say, ‘Maybe let’s try some training or credentialing and invest something in our workers, and perhaps that might help us do a better job of reducing our turnover.'”

An Untrained Workforce

Education and training have always been significant issues in a field that many people just stumble into. A 1991 study funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York (“Report on the Consultation on Professional Development of Youthworkers”) found that paid and volunteer staff “frequently enter the field without the necessary skills, and face limited opportunities to gain those skills. … Many entry level youthworkers [sic] bring little or no relevant academic or occupational training. … Because of low pay and often difficult working conditions, some agencies are pressured to hire anyone who likes youth and is willing to do the job.”

That’s Jeff Kreeb. He moved from Iowa to Wisconsin at the age of 31, after drug and alcohol had driven him to put a gun to his head. He arrived in Milwaukee with $200 and stayed for two weeks at the YMCA. “I was indigent, trying to reorganize my life,” he says. After a series of odd jobs and drug relapses, he landed a job as a “youth care worker” in a private detention facility. He liked working with kids and stayed straight, and eventually moved on to the Norris Adolescent Center, situated on 833 wooded acres southwest of the city. The non-secure facility houses 78 boys, mostly adjudicated delinquents; a couple of dozen boys and girls also come for day programs. Kreeb is a “youth care professional” in one of the cottages, serving among other things as a drug and alcohol counselor.

But until last year his youth work education was whatever he picked up on the job. Not that formal schooling always provides the necessary lessons: Laura Galovits has a BSW, but recalls with horror her field work at a shelter. “They [professors] had taught me what not to do with kids, but I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “I had no idea.”

Worried that she’d damage a youth’s life, she stayed away from the kids as much as possible. “I did a lot of laundry,” she says. For that she was named “volunteer of the year,” then dropped out of the field. Years later she joined the CYCLC, where she is an outreach specialist, setting up programs and sometimes teaching.

They are the kind of workers that the Wisconsin Association of Child and Youth Care Professionals (WACYCP) had in mind in the late ’70s when it established a committee to explore an education program for youth workers. “We wanted to create a space where people working with youth could come together to promote the professional development of the field,” says Krueger, who was committee co-chair.

Alwon believes the Milwaukee program would not be what it is without Krueger, a sort of youth worker/scholar who could connect with both youth-serving agencies and academia. He had put in 10 years as a front line worker and supervisor in Milwaukee residential youth programs, had just received his master’s degree in educational psychology from UWM and was headed for his doctorate. He had already published his first book about youth work, and has gone on to publish eight more, plus 30 research articles.

“It was Mark’s early works that I read when I was a cottage parent,” says veteran youth worker Andy Munoz, a former CYCLC teacher who is now director of community and social change inquiry at the Search Institute in Minneapolis.

The committee wanted the program to be run from a university, but not as an add-on to something already existing, like a social work degree; it had to be specific to youth work. “The focus has to be, how does this translate into a kid’s in your face on the street, or you’re trying to work with a family when a drug dealer lives next door,” Krueger says.

The association found a partner in the UWM, which established the center in its Outreach division. Most of the classes are held at the Plankington, a massive mall/business complex (the YMCA’s one-sixth-of-a-mile track runs inside) where the division has two-plus floors of offices, classrooms and a cafeteria.

The CYCLC today is a $800,000-a-year operation with nine full-time staff, funded primarily by federal funds (such as Title IV-E of the Social Security Act), the United Way of Greater Milwaukee, UWM, grants from foundations such as the Milwaukee Foundation, and dozens of private and government agencies that serve as “partners,” which means (among other things) that their workers attend the classes. The center conducts research, consults on staff development, publishes journals and newsletters, organizes conferences and runs independent living courses for youth. It is among just a few university-based youth work education programs, including Nova University in Florida, and the Child Development and Child Care Program at the University of Pittsburgh.

There are two primary youth worker tracks: an 11-week, 40-hour program leading to a Youth Development Certificate, and a Youth Work Certificate offered as an area of concentration within a degree (such as social work). The vast majority of students go through the certificate program. Most are from nonprofit community agencies such as the St. Rose Residence for girls, the Journey House education and recreation center, and the Pathfinders runaway and homeless youth shelter.

The $150 per student cost is usually covered by the student’s employer ($50-75) and a Dewitt Wallace grant (just renewed for $50,000). Another key factor: some employers make it hard – even costly – to say no.

It Pays to Learn

Twenty-five cents an hour. That’s the raise Kreeb got from the Norris Adolescent Center after earning his Youth Development Certificate last year. It doesn’t sound like much, but it shows the employer’s commitment to education – as does the fact that having a certificate adds “points,” so to speak, when a worker is being considered for promotion. Not having one “could prevent him [a youth worker] from moving to a front line position or middle management or cottage management,” says Executive Director Donald Harris.

It happened to him, says David Kagabitang, one of Kreeb’s co-workers. “I think I was passed over to manage a cottage because I didn’t have a certificate,” he says as he sits in the Outreach division cafeteria after class; he’s getting a certificate now. In the past three years Norris, which has 60 youth care staff, has sent 42 staffers through the program.

Such incentives abound. At St. Rose Residence, certified workers get a $500 bonus and “move up faster,” says treatment counselor supervisor Debbie Zwicky. YMCA workers taking the course earn points toward career advancement within the YMCA. At the Pathfinders shelter, staffers’ hours and duties were shifted around so that assistant director Lisa Gumm could get her certificate last year. At the COA’s Youth and Family Center on East Garfield Avenue, “we make our staff go to the classes,” says center Director Lynn Hildenbrand. “If we can work it into their life schedule, they take it.”

This push fits the Carnegie report’s recommendation that “agencies must do a better job of trying training to career advancement. … the organizational culture must communicate that training is necessary and valued.”

But the idea of sending workers for more education flies in the face of the traditional reaction by youth serving agencies. The top worry: better-trained workers will find better jobs. “If I send them to training, what if they sit next to someone whose agency pays 20 cents more an hour?” Alwon says, mimicking the response when he promotes the idea. “If I send them to training, they’ll want to become unionized. They’re gonna demand more salary. … I’d rather have them barefoot and dumb.”

Agencies that do send workers to the Learning Center have decided that losing workers “is a reasonable risk to take,” in the words of Tim Baack, associate executive director of the Counseling Center of Milwaukee, which runs Pathfinders and several non-residential youth and family programs. “That’s an investment we’re making in people. We’re asking them to make an investment in the people we’re here to serve.”

At Norris, Harris points out that while educating its workers sometimes helps them get better jobs (“That makes Dick go crazy,” he says of his human resources administrator), Norris’s reputation for supporting worker education also helps to recruit new blood. Michele Bria, executive director of Journey House, believes her agency’s support for worker training and higher education influences staff to stay.

“If attaining the higher education degree takes them on a different journey, I support them,” says Bria, whose agency runs recreation, education and job and parenting programs for kids and adults, and who is herself pursuing a doctorate.

Another problem is providing coverage for workers while they’re in class. That can be costly for the agency and burdensome for co-workers. “The staff [at Pathfinders] have been supportive,” says Gumm, now pursuing a master’s degree. “We’ve had to do a lot of reorganization” to make sure the right staff are on the right shifts.

Payback for Agencies

So what do the agencies get for all this trouble?

* “We get a better-educated workforce that feels more supported in an area where they’re not perceived nationally as a professionalized group,” says Harris of Norris.

* “It gets all of our youth workers staff on the right track in terms of understanding the need for standards, and the assets model for working with kids,” says Tripp of the YMCA.

*”We’re both on the same track in terms of how we work with kids,” COA’s Hildenbrand says of herself and Derrick Harris, her youth and teen coordinator.

* “If they’re not on top of things in the trade, they’re not going to be very effective,” Baack says.

* “It allows us increased flexibility in terms of the diversity of staff we can hire,” Baack adds. With the agency committed to putting all youth workers through outside training, “We can make sure [job candidates] have basic knowledge and skills and some good experiences, without having an advanced degree. It allows us to hire people who may have a high school education, a GED or an associates degree.”

*It helps agencies weed out staff who aren’t committed to the profession, says Derrick Harris, youth and teen coordinator at the COA center. Harris, who has been through the certification course, says several workers have left before finishing, illustrating that some people who get into the field “don’t think there’s that much involved. If people complete the certification, they are youth workers.”

But does it make youth workers better at their jobs? “The payback is huge,” says Zwicky of St. Rose Residence. “You get more competent and quality youth care workers.”

But ask program participants to identify how the course has changed what they do, and things get fuzzy.

“I need to think back,” says Journey House Recreation Director Brad Pellegrino as he sits next to the bumper pool table in the gym. With a degree in recreation management, Pellegrino worked at a YMCA and a city recreation agency before coming here, and went to the Learning Center last year because “I felt like maybe I was falling behind” in keeping up with the field.

He no longer feels that way, but can’t pinpoint how anything he learned at the center changed anything he does at work. “I really haven’t changed,” he says with a shrug.

At Pathfinders, Gumm ponders the question and says, “I can’t say, ‘I’m going to apply this technique that I learned in class.'” She recalls a session on “how to get youth involved in recreation activities” that she wants to build on. “I can’t say that’s resulted in a change yet. I’m able to bring it up to the staff. It’s opening some ideas.”

At Norris, Harris says his staff is better for having gone through the program, but “in terms of being able to quantify something, that’s difficult to do.”

The most concrete benefit is cited by Bria at Journey House, where some staffers have gotten certificates and others are getting graduate degrees. “I see more organized programs, more comprehensive programming going on,” she says. “Different levels of conversation among co-workers.”  

It is admittedly tough to pin down the practical impact of education, especially in human services. Even at the new Milwaukee campus of Springfield College, director Dale DeMeuse says “it’s very difficult” to measure the impact of the education that his institution offers. The BEST program is launching an evaluation of students to try to see “what are they doing with it [their training] on their jobs,” says Elaine Johnson, director of the training institute that runs BEST.

“I don’t think the question is wrong,” says Pam Stevens, former Dewitt Wallace program officer who is now director of the youth development program at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. The struggle of workers to cite the practical impact of their education “shows an ongoing problem around youth worker training, about how people translate what they hear in the classroom to what they’re doing in practice.”

The Dance

Yet there is also a faith in the inherent value of a good education even if its results cannot be directly measured. “It’s pretty likely that if they participate in this kind of learning experience, they are going to be more effective,” Krueger says.

Gumm, Pellegrino and others say the value of the training is complex and subtle, influencing their philosophies on youth and youth work in ways that will affect them for years.

“It has changed my outlook on how I deal with kids,” says John Richards of the Calvary Academy, a behavior modification school, as he sits in class before Powell appears on the TV from Kentucky. “I come down kinda hard” on the kids, he says. “It has helped me be a little more patient. It’s brought me back to how I felt when I was growing up.”

Several workers mention such attitude readjustments, saying they need to refocus on core beliefs from which they’ve strayed. On the TV screen, Powell tells the students that how they react to an aggressive youth will influence his behavior. “There’s no magic in what I’m saying here,” he says. The problem is that “many of us know these things, but when we get into the heat of a conflict, we don’t always apply them.”

Relearning or re-affirming things that may have slipped to the far corners of one’s mind is valuable, says Baack from the Counseling Center. “I don’t think it’s got to be all brand new or something you’ve never heard.”

The impact is greatest on those with the least prior training. Kreeb learned a lot from the discussion on “how do you formulate a good rec program that is cohesive with where your kids are developmentally. It’s not just bringing the kids in to play.”

“The goal of the class is to get you thinking,” Gumm says. She found particular value in the requirement to keep a journal. “It helps you self-reflect.”

That’s important, Stevens says: “It’s one thing to train people to run a program. But we need people to be more thoughtful about how they’re learning and what their practice looks like. Mark [Krueger] has been at the forefront in terms of getting people to think” about how they do their work.

At COA, Hildenbrand and Harris talk about “the dance.” That’s Krueger’s metaphor: think about youth work as a dance with kids. “When you move with them, being in sync with them,” Hildenbrand says with a smile. It is an image that she keeps in mind and stresses to her workers.   

The most-often cited benefits by former students are the value of meeting other youth workers with whom to share ideas and stories, and feeling like they’re part of a profession. “I felt like part of a bigger picture,” Kreeb says.

Harris of COA says that when he got his certificate, “I felt like this is recognizing what I do. It’s not just a hobby.”

The boost in the image of the profession and what they do may be the biggest payoff for workers, albeit a discreet one. Says Tripp of the YMCA, “We want them to feel like they’re equivalent to any profession.” 



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