In elementary school, out-of-school-time (OST) programs not only give children new opportunities to learn and grow, they also provide families with much needed after-school child care options. Participation tends to be a parent-driven decision.
As those youths age, however, they often begin to exert opinions about what type of programs they will participate in. Consequently, recruitment and retention of older kids becomes a huge challenge for OST programs.
Long-term participation in OST programs for middle and high schoolers has been shown to benefit their academic and personal growth, measured in such ways as increased school attendance, greater academic achievement and higher graduation rates. Yet, for youth who already feel alienated from school, such benefits hold little attraction. Part-time jobs, family-related child care responsibilities and hanging out with friends often guide a teenager’s decisions on how to spend out-of-school time.
The Harvard Family Research Project and Public/Private Ventures, with funding from The Wallace Foundation, examined the question of how OST programs successfully keep older kids involved. The study looked at:
• What do OST programs with high retention rates do differently, at an administrative level and a delivery level, from those that do not have high retention?
• How do these programs work differently with middle school students versus high-school students?
• Do city-wide agencies help OST programs achieve high retention rates?
The study examined OST programs in six cities: Chicago; Cincinnati; New York; Providence, R.I.; San Francisco; and Washington, D.C. These sites were selected, in part, because agencies exist in those cities to support OST programs, as well as to maintain attendance-tracking databases for the programs.
An initial sample of 346 OST programs that retained a minimum of 44 percent of their participants were invited to complete an online survey. More than half the programs answered questions relating to program activities, staffing, youth participants and family involvement. Researchers narrowed the focus of the study to programs with retention rates of 60 percent or higher and chose 14 middle school, eight high school, and six combination programs for in-depth interviews. In addition, 47 city-level stakeholders were interviewed to see whether funding and administrative support from city initiatives helped to increase retention rates.
A bivariate statistical analysis of survey data identified the characteristics that differed between high- and low-retention OST programs. The study then compared interview data to the statistical analysis to confirm the findings and understand differences between the younger and older youths.
The study found five characteristics – two from the programming and three from the programs’ structure – that significantly set apart high-retention programs from other OST programs.
• Many opportunities for participants to develop leadership skills.
Almost 90 percent of out-of-school-time programs that retain 50 percent or more of their youth for at least 12 months offer at least five leadership opportunities. This was the greatest predictor of retention for middle and high school students.
For example, leaders of a San Francisco OST program say, “If you are there for two years, there’s an opportunity to provide more leadership to the group, have direct meetings with the staff on a weekly basis, and provide major input to the program.”
Other leadership opportunities found more often in high-retention OST programs include volunteer work, community service activities, opportunities to design or lead activities for peers or younger youth and opportunities to join youth council and decision-making groups.
• Multiple techniques for staff to stay informed of youths’ lives.
Going beyond just learning each youth’s name, high-retention programs employ empathic staff members who take the time to know each participant personally. To help identify resources that a particular youth may need, staffers keep tabs on their lives outside the program by collecting report cards, frequently meeting with them one-on-one, contacting parents regularly and recognizing outside achievements.
Staff members at more than half the high-retention programs also make school visits. One OST interviewee explains the reason for this extra effort: “Their lives are so full. … If you’re there when they’re walking out of the classroom, they’re like, ‘Oh, let me check in with you.’ ”
Significant structural features
• Community-based rather than school-based.
Community-based settings may feel more safe and inviting for OST youth, and offering programming outside of a school setting may reduce feelings of alienation that are based on low academic achievement and school-based power structures.
Having programs in a community setting also helps to minimize the drama often associated with middle and high school. An OST provider said of youths: “They … sometimes don’t come because the same young people who are disruptive in class are also there in after-school.”
School-based programs can maintain high-retention rates, but it takes work to create a different feel from the school building that houses the program. Some programs rearrange desks and chairs. Others make their learning more hands-on and project-oriented than is typical in class.
• Programs of more than 100 youth per year.
Large programs generally indicate a richer set of resources and infrastructure that support their success. In some instances, the larger programs are appealing because they offer a larger peer group from which participants can make friends.
As youths grow older and have more specialized interests, having a large number of high schoolers within a program can allow for youths to break off into smaller interest groups. Someone from a Washington, D.C., program noted, “It’s almost like we develop a philosophy that, in order to reach a kid, you’ve got to meet them where they are, then you can take them somewhere else.” This results in small niche groups with highly committed participants.
• Regular staff meetings to discuss program-related issues.
Staff meetings of at least 30 minutes twice a month prove to be a more effective structural practice in high-retention rate programs than the number of days a program is offered or the fact that a program may be one of a kind. The study suggests that this “represent[s] an intentional focus on program planning and management that may suggest intentionality in other facets of the organization, including the program’s focus on youth retention.”
Regular staff meetings serve a variety of functions. Staff members can stay abreast of issues pertaining to particular youth and brainstorm how to solve specific conflicts. Regular meetings can also boost morale among staff members and keep turnover rates down.
This finding meshes with interview data from city-level stakeholders, which indicate high-retention OST programs take advantage of city-level supports, such as networking with other programs and training staff in youth engagement.