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Youth programs designed for those who need them most

By Joanna Tzenis

Did you know that time spent in youth programs is the most consistent predictor of youth thriving? Participation in them can enhance young people's self-esteem, school performance and civic responsibility. But which youth benefit the most?

While all youth can and do benefit from youth programs, they are disproportionately valuable to the welfare of low-income or marginalized youth. Those who have fewer resources -- financial, cultural, and social -- benefit disproportionately more from programs than youth who have plenty. Ironically, there is a severe shortage of youth programs designed for at-risk youth.

This is an urgent issue that the Minnesota Children, Youth and Families at Risk (CYFAR) team has gone a along way to addressing. The Minnesota CYFAR Sustainable Communities Project is entering its fifth year of operation. Since its launch, we have used the organic middle school model designed specifically for youth and their families at risk. It is not a highly structured program model in the sense that we have a prescribed curriculum, content or activities. Rather, the content emerges from the interests and talents of the youth, family and their community -- keeping program staff on their toes as they continually design a learning environment that sparks those interests and draws out those talents.

Our evaluation findings confirm that the organic nature of the model is essential to successful programming. Each site keeps youth's interests at the center of learning, and so each has a different focus. At the Willmar site, youth love the opportunity "express their nerdiness" in science. In Winona, they escape "living in a text book" and "actually touch stuff." In St. Paul, young people relish the rare urban opportunity to connect with nature in the context of their Ojibwe and Lakota cultures. Because their interests are at the core of programming, across all sites, young people are having fun while learning and motivated to explore their educational interests. This is particularly important for young people whose knowledge or ways of knowing are often marginalized in other settings.

In your experience, what are indispensable elements of youth programs for young people who are at risk for not meeting their basic needs? What can we do as professionals in the field of youth development to advance the development for this type of programming?

-- Joanna Tzenis, assistant Extension professor, Children, Youth and Families at Risk (CYFAR)

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  1. Thank you for taking the time to set this up!

  2. Thanks, Joanna, for this blog! I work with the St. Paul CYFAR site, and that organic component to the program model IS essential. At that school (American Indian Magnet), rather than coming in as outsiders to do a 4-H program, we let the teachers, youth, and community members at the school make 4-H their own. They added Ojibwe and Lakota words for the 4 "H's" (head, heart, hands, health) to the 4-H clover emblem, and the youth learn all the components of the curriculum (photography, nature journaling, environmental conservation, wildlife identification, service learning) through a Native lens. As a result, it is not only the youth, but also the school and the parents that feel a sense of ownership over the learning that is happening in the club. That ownership develops confidence and a sense of hope.
    The only down-side with this organic approach is that it's a bit more messy and unpredictable. But what part of youth development isn't? It's this this unpredictability that causes many people to shy away--too scary for some. But it's also, I believe, the key to true sustainability, because of the sense of ownership that it creates in the young people. I wonder--do you have any ideas for how to "sell" this organic component to those who are most reluctant?

  3. Thank you for your comments, Jessica, and for sharing how the organic model as taken shape in St. Paul.
    I believe the key to “selling” this program model lies in evaluation—namely the logic model we have in place. The logic model offers a clear road map for successful implementation. And while you are absolutely correct that it is messy and unpredictable, even these “messy” elements exist within a logical framework. Ironically, the unpredictability is predicted and expected. This is why a highly skilled youth worker who can usher this unpredictability to positive outcomes is essential to this model. Further, after four years of working on our CYFAR program, we have garnered impact data demonstrating the program model makes the intended positive impact on youth and their families. Documenting and disseminated this impact data in a “consumer-friendly” way is also essential for “selling” the program model. Thank you for you comment!

  4. Too many children fall to negative streets simply because we fail to place positive, productive options and opportunities on their paths.
    The truth is our children aren't failing as much as we're failing our children!

  5. In today's time, it is must to gain the interest of young people to make them learn new things. The programs can do this and will aware youth about their responsibilities and the new things they can think and do.

  6. Recycling Businesses for SaleOctober 17, 2012 at 1:11 AM

    Youth programs are generally organized for increasing interest of youth about new things and to aware them about modern world so that they can know their responsibilities and grow their position to learn many things and then can get opportunities. the programs are good for making self-confidence and for getting positive thinking.


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