Opinion

Congratulations on Your Engagement

A recent study entitled A Report on the 2007 and 2008 High School Survey of Student Engagement provides some distressing news about the state of American high schools, alongside interesting grist for youth workers’ planning mills. First the headlines:

• Half of high school students say they are bored in school every day, citing the following reasons: Material isn’t interesting (80-plus percent), isn’t relevant (40-plus percent), is too difficult (about one-quarter) or is too easy (about one-third); or lack of interaction with teachers (about one-third).

• About half of respondents say they spend an hour or less per week reading or studying for class, while 60 to 70 percent report that they spend two or more hours per week watching television, playing video games, talking on the phone, or surfing or chatting online.

• Despite these reports of actual time use, more than 70 percent rate studying for class as “somewhat important, very important, or top priority” and more than 90 percent say they expect to graduate from high school.

What is a youth worker to do? First of all, we have to decide whether these findings make sense, given what we know from our experience and from the quality of the research. I am inclined to believe these results on both fronts. The time-use findings mirror studies going back 20 or more years; they also reflect achievement rates, locally and nationally. (For example, we know from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that students in the lowest achievement quartile watch the most television.) Also, the sample for this study was sizeable and the methods reliable. The researchers conducted 30-minute surveys with 134,706 students drawn from large and small high schools across the country.

Second, we need to consider our role in helping to promote students’ engagement in their own learning and healthy development. Here are a few suggestions:

Promote positive youth-adult relationships: One of the most poignant findings of the study relates to the desires of young people for positive relationships with adults and peers. Many respondents said they longed for closer connections with adult mentors and role models. In addition to directly providing consistent and caring relationships with adolescents, youth workers can serve as relationship brokers – helping young people make authentic connections with their teachers, guidance counselors and other adults.

Help young people identify their interests: Youth organizations have long been places where young people have discovered their passions. By offering voice and choice, we expose youth to possibilities and give them the time (and guidance) to test their skills and interests. We can also help young people uncover the science in sports, the math in arts, the literacy in playwriting and acting – and, in the process, see the relevance of their academic subjects. Informal learning can be a powerful tool in keeping kids engaged in academics and helping them stay on track for graduation.

Partner with schools: This new report shines a spotlight on the “crisis level” of the state of America’s high schools. The authors cite U.S. Department of Education data documenting that the on-time graduation rate for America’s public school class of 2005-06 was 73.2 percent. High schools need partners who understand adolescent development and who bring expertise in several critical areas outlined in the study, particularly skill-building and relationship-building.

Here in New York City, colleagues at Good Shepherd Services created a national model for school-community partnerships through the use of “counselor-advocates” who make sure that high school students take the right courses and stay on track to graduate.

Meanwhile, a new Coalition for Community Schools report highlights the work of 18 public high schools that connect with their communities in innovative ways, including the Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, a partnership that joins the skills of progressive educators with those of knowledgeable youth workers employed by The Children’s Aid Society. And across the country, Boys & Girls Clubs are partnering with schools in new ways through a national initiative called Every Member, Every Year, which is focused on addressing the high school graduation problem head on.

One of the best features of this new report is its emphasis on “engaging the voices of students” in our search for solutions. This kind of active listening is a strength of the youth work field and may offer unparalleled opportunities to harness our skill set in powerful partnerships with high schools and their ready-to-be-engaged students.

Jane Quinn is assistant executive director for community schools at the Children’s Aid Society in New York City.

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