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How to make sure your programs are equipped to reach youth who most need them

By Daniel Cooper

We are not adequately preparing all youth for future success. Nearly 20% percent of U.S. students do not graduate high school within four years. Of the 1.5 million students who took the ACT in 2009, only 23% were considered ready to enroll in college without support.

Educational disparities are another big issue. Black-White education gaps are about the same now as they were in 1965. Latinxs are 2x less likely to have a college degree than European-American students. There is a need for programs that support youth of all backgrounds to achieve their educational and career goals.

How can you promote equity in your program? 

Our field is paying more attention to equity -- giving youth the support they need to be successful inside and outside of school with a focus on decreasing disparities in learning outcomes.

Many programs focus on academic skills, but the factor of socio-emotional development cannot be overstated. Equipping students with the ability to better regulate their thoughts and emotions, learn independently and manage their time well may be more important than improving their math and reading scores. In fact, research suggests that conscientiousness is one of the most important socio-emotional factors for school success.

Programs with these characteristics are more likely to address equity:
  • Ongoing assessments of program equity (and avoiding common mistakes in measuring it).
  • Promoting the understanding of potential barriers and institutionalized discriminatory practices that certain groups face.
  • Having conversations about how programs can be adjusted to better meet the needs of underserved youth.

What are some of the core components of effective youth programs?

Individual-level components:
  • Socio-emotional interventions create small changes in perception can have large effects (e.g., belief that one’s personality can change through experience).
  • Interventions targeting time management, note-taking and study skills show promising results.
  • Interventions promoting college knowledge (e.g., costs, financial aid options, application requirements) are important.

Higher-level components:
  • Educational equity interventions should include families and peers.

Ways to improve your program

Once you’ve planned for equity in your program, here’s a tool you can use to assess your progress. It can help you see how your program goals and implementation align with best practices for educational equity. The goal of this tool is to spark ideas for adopting a more systemic approach to positive youth development programming that caters to the needs of all youth.

The survey includes four sections:
  • Identifying program goals and focal areas
  • Assessment of program content
  • Scoring
  • Application: reflection and program improvement

It can be a starting point for identifying potential avenues for program development and more equitable practices. Making programs more equitable starts with evaluation. After evaluating your program, you’ll be able to create ways to address barriers to equity.

How does your program address equity? Is there a discrepancy between who would benefit most from the program and who is currently receiving it? If so, what can you do about it?

-- Daniel Cooper, program evaluation graduate research assistant

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  1. Hi Dan. Thanks for sharing your insights. Do you think this equity measure could serve as a form of a needs assessment or would you encourage using a different tool for assessing needs?

    1. Hi Sam. Thanks for your question! The equity measure would be a great starting point for a needs assessment. It can highlight some potential gaps that the youth program may not be fully addressing for youth of certain backgrounds. However, a full fledged needs assessment would involve the use of other tools as well. See this link for more information on starting a needs assessment:

  2. Dan, thank you for your article. I really appreciate that you highlighted the importance of socio-emotional learning. I truly believe that the more we focus on the holistic health and development of youth the better our outcomes become. I think the equity assessment tool could provide great insight into program planning and program theory. The more intentional we can be about program activities, outcomes and impacts in the early stages of program planning the more informed our evaluation efforts will be down the line.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Lindsay! I agree that equity should ideally be considered early on in the program development process. And, it is also never too late to make program adjustments to better cater to diverse youth!


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