Opinion

Can Youth Development Programs Contribute to Academic Success?

A hot topic in the world of after-school and youth development programs is their role in promoting young people’s academic success. Often missing from this discussion is any sense that there are multiple approaches to integrating academic content into out-of-school time (OST) programs. These approaches – there are at least three – can all be valid if they’re applied appropriately and delivered effectively.

Academic remediation is offered when students struggle to master course content and skills during the regular school day. The advent of explicit learning standards at the state and district levels has helped to clarify the importance of remedial services for those who fall behind. Remediation can include one-on-one and small group tutoring, review classes and computer-assisted instruction.

Unfortunately, remediation can become a “default drive” rather than a treatment that is thoughtfully applied to different youth. What’s more, it often does not draw on the core competencies of youth organizations. Unless youth workers can offer high quality academic remediation, we should probably focus our attention on support and enrichment, while advocating for good remedial services for children who need them.

Academic support is designed to promote student success through such efforts as homework assistance and “test sophistication” training sessions. All children can benefit from this help, and many receive it from their parents or from telephone hotlines staffed by teachers and college students. Many after-school and youth development programs provide these kinds of services as well.

The value of homework assistance intervention depends largely on the quality and amount of the homework assignments. High-quality assignments are engaging, are directly related to classroom instruction and do not involve introducing new content.

Other key factors are the knowledge and skills of the program staff. For example, two studies of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers after-school programs, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, found that many homework help programs were ineffective because they were conducted as study halls, with little adult guidance or support.

Academic enrichment may or may not be directly linked to what children learn during the regular school day. What makes this kind of programming academic in its focus – as opposed to the focus of social, cultural or recreational enrichment – is that it gives young people opportunities to apply and see the relevance of such academic skills as reading, writing, oral presentation, mathematical calculation and scientific inquiry.

In an earlier column (“Youth Work’s Vitamin E,” May 2002), I outlined the following elements as central to enrichment:

* Exposure – Introducing young people to new ideas, information, places and relationships.
* Experience – Providing them with opportunities to apply their knowledge and skills through hands-on activities.
* Engagement – Encouraging them to fully activate their minds, bodies and spirits.

A strong theoretical and empirical case can be made for this kind of programming. We’ve known for many years, thanks to the work of researcher Reginald Clark (of Clark and Associates in Claremont, Calif.) and others, that how children use their nonschool hours can make a critical difference in whether they succeed in school. Clark found that children who spent 20 to 35 hours a week engaged in “constructive learning activities” during their discretionary time performed better in school. Similarly, researcher Deborah Vandell (now at the University of California at Irvine) found that children’s participation in high-quality after-school programs improved their academic achievement, work habits, emotional adjustment and social relations.

More recently, an external evaluation of LA’s BEST – one of the nation’s premier after-school programs, which incorporates homework help and academic enrichment every day – found that regular participation in this elementary-level intervention was associated with improved high school graduation rates. This finding, reported by a UCLA research team, demonstrates the value of taking a long-term view when identifying desired outcomes.

Youth workers face a critical challenge as we grapple with the growing pressure to articulate the value that our programs can add to the work of schools, particularly in this time of test-score frenzy. We can begin by outlining the distinct types of academic interventions and teasing out plausible outcomes that capitalize on our strengths, address young people’s developmental needs and align well with our goals and activities.

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