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Access and the opportunity gap

By Josey Landrieu

In his inaugural address a few weeks ago, the new University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler called upon us to move the university forward in terms of research, access, and excellence, using the word "access" 13 times.

Issues of access apply to out-of-school-time learning, as well as higher ed. Listening to the latest reports and events in our field have sparked important questions for me about access to positive educational opportunities for all young people.

How can we ensure that all youth (especially those who need it the most) have access to well structured and well implemented programs? How can out-of-school time (OST) programs connect youth with positive learning opportunities? How can we as youth development scholars and practitioners level the playing field for all youth?

For OST opportunities to be effective they must be well structured, staffed by caring adults, and provide youth with a real opportunity to contribute and be engaged in their communities. Research shows that certain conditions are necessary in order for OST programs to have positive results on the lives and opportunities of young people. However, access to well structured and well implemented programs is not equal for all youth. Scholars have talked about this issue in terms of an opportunity gap; it's not always about the difference in achievement scores but it's often about the access to resources, caring adults, and positive educational experiences where the gap is widest.

In a recent commentary in Education Week, H. Richard Milner of Vanderbilt University discussed the role of OST programs in helping close this opportunity gap. The following quote caught my attention, especially the words "developing evidence": "I would urge [OST] programs to continue developing evidence of their usefulness, not only related to academics but other important skills necessary for students to succeed in society such as social skills, study skills, communication skills, conflict resolution skills, and perhaps most importantly social justice orientations and skills. It is critical that students feel empowered to change and challenge negative and inequitable situations that show up in their communities."

Throughout the commentary, Milner provides further considerations for our practice in youth development. He urges us:
  • To look at the opportunities and resources that youth have or not in order to address their needs.
  • To ensure that youth workers are trained to ensure that active, collaborative, meaningful, support mastery, and expands horizons are actualized in afterschool programs.
  • To have critical conversations about disparities based on race, ethnicity, or socio-economic status. Otherwise we will continue to see huge disparities among the youth we serve.

Here is my call to action: How do we ensure equitable access to high-quality programs? How do we make sure that all youth can enjoy the benefits of these programs? Could we suggest additional considerations to Milner's list? In what other ways can practitioners, scholars and funders level the playing field?

-- Josey Landrieu, former assistant Extension professor, program evaluation

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  1. Josey,
    Thank you for such an insightful and important post. You have addressed an urgent issue in our field.
    I am curious to learn your thoughts about the question you broached regarding access to positive out of school time. Can you elaborate on what you believe is, or even what research indentifies as, the largest barriers to access for OST learning in particular? You mentioned a lack of resources (e.g. social, economic, and cultural), which are also the identified barriers in the field of (formal) education.
    I ask this question because research in youth development clearly states that low-income youth (i.e. “those who need it most”) show the largest benefits from programs. It would seem that such unequivocal research would be intentionally carried out in our field and therefore make “access” top priority for youth practitioners. I view it as our central charge as members of these field to offer OST to “those who need it most.” We have the advantage (in addressing social inequities) over formal schools, which is often bound to national agendas around achievement, because we have more freedom to intentionally reach out to “those who need it most” and validate the resources they have available to them. What do you believe is stopping us from meeting this charge? I would appreciate more insight into and a discussion around the social and/or programmatic mechanisms that make OST youth programs so inaccessible.
    I only touched on one small piece of your very important message. Again, I appreciate you offering these insights on issues of social inequities.
    Thanks, Josey!

  2. Thank you for your comment and question Joanna. I believe that one of the most important barriers to accessing high quality programs for youth is the lack of information about what's available in their communities. This might seem a small barrier but research and work in communities has demonstrated that often times youth and families don't know what's available to them. I also believe this can be tied to larger issues of social capital, networks, and information-rich relationships. The question then becomes how do we make sure that youth who benefit the most and need opportunities the most have the correct information to be able to access the programs and how do we go beyond giving information to creating meaningful connections between programs, resources, and the youth?
    Some of the work that has been done to address this need locally has been done with mapping; in which youth and adults worked together to create community maps of the various OST programs available to them in Minneapolis. Resources were also allocated to address other barriers such as transportation, program related fees, etc.
    I don't think something is stopping us from meeting this charge, but I do believe that we need to create new ways of addressing the issue of access and making sure that systems and communities work collaboratively to reduce the opportunity gap.

  3. Hi Josey –
    You raise so many important points. When opportunity gaps are discussed often the conversation goes straight to race, ethnicity, socioeconomics – I prefer to stretch the conversation to include sociocultural groups – which broadens our understanding of youth and their experiences.
    Although you did not mention it specifically, your blog got my thinking about oppression and role it plays in the opportunity gap. Oppression can occur and be analyzed at multiple levels, for instance:
    Micro – Individual – “being myself”
    Meso – Community – recognition/expectations/interactions
    Macro – National – social categories, classifications, structural inequality
    Global – Global - social categories, classifications, structural inequality
    Each of these levels presents a host of barriers to youth achieving equitable access to high quality programs. So I am thinking about what it would be like if the field of youth work recognized the role it could play in dismantling oppression by, for example, addressing the opportunity gap and equipping youth with the knowledge and resources needed to continue the quest in their own individual ways.
    Great blog … I am curious about your thoughts on oppression and its relationship to the opportunity gap.

  4. Jen,
    Thank you so much for your comment. I really appreciate how you break down the ways in which oppression can occur and be analyzed. Although I considered it, I didn't communicate it in such a clear way. These different levels of oppression and being aware that they exist and that they have consequences on the experiences of youth is a useful tool/structure that our field can take into account as we more clearly define our role in diminishing the opportunity gap.
    I think the field of youth work could develop different ways and strategies to address the opportunity gap by responding to the various structures of oppression in our society.
    I also completely agree with you about broadening our understanding of youth experiences and including socio-cultural groups. However, would you mind saying just a little bit more about what you mean by socio-cultural groups? (age, gender, ethnicity, language? or are you thinking some I might not be considering?).
    Thanks for the conversation Jen!

  5. Hi Josey
    Thanks for continuing the discussion. Sociocultural groups could include like you mentioned age, gender, ethnicity, nationality, language and also sexual orientation, ability, immigration/generational status ... and more.

  6. Greetings Josey!
    You know I had to jump in to this conversation as the opportunity gap and the participation gap are my biggest issues. We are fortunate as a field to be looking at what is needed inside the box of program, however as Karen Pittman and many others (myself included) keep saying, if young people don't get to a program or stay involved in it they can't get the benefits from it.
    A little local data to underscore your point. In MN (and nationally) about 50% of youth are involved in some kind of out of school program or activity. To me this is an unacceptably low percentage given that we know what benefits can accrue from good youth development program participation. We also know that youth from low-income families and communities have a much lower participation rate. To me, addressing this participation gap should be among the number one priorities in the OST field.
    As Josey indicated, one of the top 3 barriers in several different studies is that youth don't know what is available. This is a problem we can DO something about! Our Youth Action Crew project is a youth-led social marketing project that is trying to address this very problem--and who better than youth to market what exists to other youth?
    But to Jennifer's point, it takes more than mere information about what exists. There are socio-cultural norms that also make it less likely that young people from disenfranchised communities will participate and engage. Nonetheless, as Josey points out, participation is probably also related to the lack of caring, adult relationships young people have, because if more adults were actively involved in the lives of youth in their neighborhood, faith community, on their block, youth would have much more likelihood of hooking up to positive programs and resources. Thanks Josey!

  7. Thanks Beki for your insightful comment and additional details on the Youth Action Crew project (I was hoping you would bring this up :). I agree with you that 50% of youth involved in activities is unacceptable, especially if we break down the numbers and realize that the disparities are even greater among different socio-cultural groups.
    I appreciate the fact that we are can have this open and critical discussion and I hope that we all continue to bring up issues of access and the opportunity gap as we move our work forward (both in and out of programs).