Competence is Cool

Interest in after-school programs for high schoolers is growing around the country, and in many quarters. Several recent national conferences have focused on the topic, as have a number of reports. While there are several reasons for this emerging attention, the single biggest factor is probably our nation’s collective, dismal record on high school graduation.

That record includes the following statistics:

• Fifty percent of African-American and Hispanic youth fail to graduate on time.

• Each year, 1.1 million U.S. students drop out of high school.

• One American high schooler drops out every 29 seconds.

An influential 2004 report by Johns Hopkins University researchers Robert Balfanz and Nettie Legters, “Locating the Dropout Crisis,” highlighted the fact that at between 900 and 1,000 schools, graduating is a 50/50 proposition at best. This report added a troubling but apt new phrase to our educational lexicon: “dropout factories.”

While the youth development field has a long history of serving adolescents, what is changing is our collective understanding that the dropout problem is, at least in part, our problem. While youth workers cannot take responsibility for the inadequacies of the low-performing schools cited by Johns Hopkins, many of us have come to realize that we can contribute to high school success by providing out-of-school-time experiences that build young people’s knowledge, skills, attitudes and aspirations. (See “Dropout.”)

In order to be really effective, however, we need to follow several important principles:

• Our practice needs to be guided by the unique developmental strengths, needs and tasks of adolescents. Programs must take into account the multiple domains of adolescents’ development – physical, social, emotional, cognitive and moral – as well as their life experiences, making sure to build on the youths’ strengths, prior knowledge and the developmental milestones they’ve achieved. Developmentally appropriate tasks during adolescence include learning coping skills; developing positive self-esteem; learning how to manage risks, make decisions and navigate a variety of cultural contexts; learning so-called “soft skills,” such as teamwork and problem-solving; and building and applying cognitive skills, including literacy and numeracy.

• Programs for adolescents need to be different, in both content and process, from those developed for younger children. Adolescents have greater freedom in how they spend their free time, and they often have firm views about what they want to learn and whom they want to spend time with. Effective youth workers consider themselves partners with adolescents and actively seek to respond to their needs and interests.

• We should start with results in mind, and at least one of those results must be high school graduation leading toward productive adulthood. Out-of-school-time programs should provide vital developmental experiences that complement and enhance the experiences provided at home and school.

Sam Piha, a veteran youth worker from San Francisco, and I recently offered a workshop on high school-level programs at a National Afterschool Association conference. Sam described an interview he’d just conducted with a young man about his participation in a Bay Area after-school program. The teenager talked about how much he appreciated the youth worker who had taught him a variety of valuable skills. “Competence,” the youth observed, “is cool.”

Adolescents want opportunities to try out and practice adult roles, including apprenticeships with skilled workers, internships in corporate workplaces, paid employment (even in youth-serving organizations) and service-learning opportunities.

Several good models have fully implemented these principles: programs like Youth Communication, with its focus on developing journalism skills and producing written publications; the Education Video Center, which engages adolescents in researching, writing and creating video productions on topics of interest to them; several youth-run radio stations in urban areas; and After School Matters, a high school apprenticeship model in Chicago that focuses on arts, technology, sports and communications.

As our field moves these principles from models to modus operandi, we need to ensure that our out-of-school-time programs are tied back to the real-world credentials of high school graduation and preparation for college or work. As we do that, we need to make sure that all young people understand that competence is cool.


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