Conventional wisdom says the quality of youth work programs rests in no small measure on the quality of the program staff. But how do you achieve staff quality with the largely part-time, low-wage work force found in many youth service agencies?
While we labor over the long term to create more full-time positions and advocate a living wage for youth workers, we should consider some short-term strategies to increase staff quality.
A recent issue of the Harvard Family Research Project’s Evaluation Exchange (Winter 2005-06, www.hfrp.org) tackled this topic, offering useful articles that emphasized one common theme: the importance of taking a systemic approach to work force development. As I read, I realized that our own practices at the Children’s Aid Society in New York City employed most if not all of the recommended approaches.
So I offer the following snapshot of what a professional development system can look like on the ground:
* Recruitment and retention: Our youth work staff is intentionally diverse in terms of age, race, gender, academic background and life experiences. We use a variety of recruitment vehicles, including the Internet, newspaper ads and college placement offices to recruit staff for our 20 youth development programs located in school- and community-based sites. We try to hire bilingual staff. Word of mouth has been especially helpful in finding qualified staff, as has recruiting program alumni and residents from the neighborhoods around our community centers and schools.
Retention strategies include recognition programs, tuition assistance, upward mobility in salaries and job titles, and ongoing access to professional development.
* Orientation: New employees, including part-time and seasonal workers, receive orientation to the procedures, norms and values of the organization as well as to the specific responsibilities of their positions. Orientation and pre-service professional development are offered through a combination of central and on-site opportunities, usually in half-day sessions.
* Training: In many organizations, the direct service workers are the last people to receive training, despite the crucial nature of their work. At Children’s Aid, the direct service youth workers participate in mandatory staff development twice a year. These all-day Saturday training events usually revolve around a theme, such as bullying prevention, and offer a keynote presentation followed by skill-building workshops.
Part-time staff members are paid to participate, and their supervisors are expected to facilitate the application of what they’ve learned.
In addition, Children’s Aid sponsors an array of training for other youth work staff. For example, the Middle School Caucus provides a sequential series of training and planning seminars for site-based workers who are responsible for developing programs for young adolescents. We encourage staff members to participate in training offered by other organizations as well.
For example, we pay registration fees and travel expenses for conferences sponsored by Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the Center for Summer Learning.
* Supervision: Every youth worker at Children’s Aid, whether full- or part-time, has a supervisor who monitors, evaluates and documents staff performance. We regularly offer supervisory training at several levels, including basic training for new supervisors. The organization’s performance management system and written appraisal format include an individualized development plan for each employee.
* On-site coaching: Drawing on a model created by the California after-school program LA’s BEST, Children’s Aid has instituted an on-site coaching program at all of our youth development sites. We created a cadre of “education coordinators” who observe program implementation and offer program improvement advice and resources. The coordinators get support from our director of education services, who provides training, facilitates peer networking and communicates regularly with the program directors to whom the education coordinators report.
* Program materials: Children’s Aid addresses continuous program improvement by identifying the best after-school and youth development curricula and program materials, and by supporting their use at our sites. For example, we use Foundations and KidzLit for literacy enrichment; Operation SMART, Dragonfly Quest and World in Motion for science; and the Math 24 Game.
* Networks: We sponsor monthly role-alike meetings for several groups of staff in our youth work programs: site directors, program directors and parent coordinators. These peer learning networks encourage joint problem-solving and sharing of best practices. This model can work for smaller organizations that organize interagency peer networks.
We in the youth development field are learning from our colleagues in education, child welfare and early childhood that the most effective professional development involves a multi-faceted approach that links new knowledge and skills to practice.
Maybe high quality is not really a conundrum after all. Maybe it’s just hard work – and a good investment.