Opinion

A New ‘To Do’ List For Youth Work

Why do you make a personal “to do” list? To get things done. To set priorities and work efficiently. To hold yourself accountable for results.

So why not list by name young people who need our help, then hold ourselves and them accountable for the results?

The idea has its origins in my evaluation of a pilot program testing youth development principles for the Ford Foundation back in the mid-1990s. Called the Quantum Opportunities Program (QOP), the program was replicated in more sites under a Ford and U.S. Department of Labor initiative.

The pilot program yielded promising results for very poor teens in the post-high-school period. (We do not yet know long-term evaluation results for the replicated sites, to be reported by Mathematica Policy Research.) One theory for the pilot’s success was aggressive outreach, starting the kind of list of young people that I just suggested.

QOP and several other models – such as the Boston’s Operation Ceasefire to combat violence, the Mobile County, Ala., district attorney’s list of 900 youth perceived to be highly at risk of getting into serious trouble, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s approach to gang prevention and intervention – all utilize staff and volunteers who spread throughout the community, knock on doors and/or work off a list. The approach tries to avoid the idea that the kids must come to the professionals, rather than youth workers (including volunteers) going to youth wherever they may be found: playgrounds, churches, basketball courts, jails or GED programs. What we really need – here’s the nutty part – is a listing system.

I know that civil rights advocates will label this as “profiling” and oppose any kind of youth registry. But we cannot increase accountability and performance in the youth service system unless we first know, by name, who is most at risk. Let’s register and pursue individuals on “the list” aggressively, with incentives and opportunities, then require the young people to match these promises with a quid pro quo of their own: high performance, hard work and healthy behavior.

That is no guarantee that all youth will respond well; we saw that in the pilot for QOP, and may see it again in the replication. (The QOP pilot is described in the chapter “Extending the Time for Learning,” in Disconnected Youth, Child Welfare League Press, 1999.) But it sends the right signals and models the real world, which is organized around give-and-take.

Consider a system in which all young people in a high-poverty geographic area are asked to participate in a “future options education” (FOE) sign-up system leading to an “FOE plan,” analogous to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in special education. The process could start with every parent and guardian of a fifth-grader signing a release that allows a community intermediary agency to track, beg, cajole, offer and broker career services for young people on the list. With frequent contact and connection – as if your health insurance company wanted to keep in touch with you – the intermediary, through its affiliated network of youth programs, would help translate the FOE plans developed in the late middle school years into career-focused realities for each youth.

Right now in America, nonschool youth programs rely mostly on “walk-ins” or some form of mandatory referrals. No institution, except families, is accountable for the nonschool hours. After-school and community programs only know about the small number of young people they serve directly. It doesn’t take much to see that this phenomenon – along with fee-for-services incentives written into many policies to serve the least needy and the tendency of youth programs to serve people for very short durations – all conspire to leave some of the most disadvantaged youth out of youth programs in the nonschool hours.

For these youth, we need something different: a system that is proactive, that goes where the youth goes, that knows the youth’s name, and that introduces accountability by not glossing over the challenging “cases” who do not have families or friends encouraging them to voluntarily attend after-school services.

The message of the new intermediary: “We know who you are. You are not invisible. Wherever you go, whatever you do, we will be there with you and for you, to get you on track with your career fulfillment dreams.

“If not now, when you are ready, but we will not give up on you or your goals in the Future Options Education plan. You are on our list. ”

Andrew Hahn is professor at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University and the Howland Endowed Visiting Chairman for Youth Leadership Studies in the University of Minnesota’s 4-H Youth Development Center.

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