From Low-Skilled to College-Ready: Building Pathways for All Youth Who Drop Out- Part 4

This is a guest post by Peter Kleinbard. It is the fourth in a series on dropout reengagement drawn from the case studyFor Young Adults Who Drop Out: Pathways Or Merely Stops Along The Way?

Low skilled to college ready - for blog

“It is not a time like when I was a teenager I could go to McDonald’s … impress a manager, fill out the application, and I had a job. …But now…I have to consistently show [youth] they can’t get discouraged. They still have to keep trying… And that’s my fear. Frustration and despair.”            -Ralph (Counselor for Site B).

Ralph’s comment highlights the heightened risks for young adults who have dropped out in today’s difficult job market and the importance of helping them, not only to get a job, but to avoid the consequences of “frustration and despair” that can lead to high-risk behavior. This post, the last of a series, focuses on how to identify the elements that build high-quality programs.

Outcomes, such as employment and postsecondary placements, are necessary when assessing the quality of programs, but they are not adequate. Given that programs have different approaches to selecting participants and reporting results, outcomes will have different meanings about effectiveness. A site that chooses to work with youth who have serious obstacles to success may be doing a good job even though it may not produce as many outcomes or as rapidly as one that works with those who are nearly job-ready.

In assessing programs, much depends also on the purposes of the organization making the assessment. Those seeking to build the field – to improve opportunities for young adults in their city or region area – will want to extract lessons from the operation of a program for wider application, rather than merely counting results. When this is the objective, it is important to look broadly and thoughtfully at how programs actually work.

When I assess programs as a funder or program manager, I begin by identifying elements that I can readily observe: Does the number of young adults present match the number the program claims to serve? Do participants attend designated activities and do they participate actively? Do staff members demonstrate by their activities and comment on engagement with participants?

Do program leaders state clearly the relationship between what the site offers and how participants are expected to benefit from it? Their ideas should be consistent with what we know about what works for young adults. (See, for example, The National Employment Coalition’s PepNet site.) Often, “youth development” is cited as an approach. What does that mean? It means combining caring support with high expectations, and assuring that young people have a voice in setting their goals and assessing the program. Staff and participants should express awareness that these ideas are present in the program and that they experience them.

Support should be reflected in how frequently and the manner in which staff speak with youth who are on their caseloads. Public/Private Ventures, a national nonprofit organization, explained in their research that across all ages and program types, supportive relationships with staff appear to be the most important reason youth stay in programs.

Students should be able to state their goals and say where they stand in their quest to achieve them. They must trust that their aspirations and feelings are understood and responded to by staff.

The program structure – for example, a sequence of increasingly demanding classes and training experiences- must reinforce good practices such as regularly scheduled assessments to determine whether youth can ascend to more demanding classes and/or work experiences as they gain skills and understanding.

While most programs have databases, utilizing them to help guide and improve program activities can be uneven. An observer should ask: Is staff updating information about student attendance and scores, and are there counselor notes that highlight growth and emerging issues? Do staff and leaders consult and use this information in their work with participants?

Coherence: It is important that young adults get the same messages from all staff and that everyone is pushing in the same direction. To assure that this occurs, staff members who interact with the same young person must consult among themselves so that there is a common understanding and approach to addressing problems and supporting strengths. In Afterschool Centers and Youth Development, authors B.J. Hirsch, N.L. Deutsch, and D. L. DuBois describe Collective Mentoring – the idea is that all staff working with the same young person consider themselves responsible for his/her progress and consult regularly. In my observations, the ability of staff to interact face-to-face on a regular schedule increased the depth and frequency of consultation about participants.

Leadership: Considering limited space, I will not address the ways that leaders contribute to program quality, nor the role of hiring, orientation and supervision practices. However, these issues are explored at length in the program descriptions in the full paper.

Peter KleinbardAbout the Author: Peter Kleinbard is a graduate of Yale University. From 2001 until 2010, he was executive director of the Youth Development Institute, a national intermediary based in New York City. He also founded the Youth Transition Funders, an affinity group for foundations. To comment on this blog or related issues, write:


Losing a Youth Development Icon

I know that some municipal officials devote their entire lives to public service.  In Boston, Tom Menino has served as mayor for nearly 20 years, and spent almost a decade before that as a member of the City Council.  Richard Daley dominated Chicago’s City Hall and political life for a generation, as his father had done in an earlier era.  And Joseph Riley in Charleston, S.C., has surely earned the moniker of “mayor for life,” first elected in 1975 and now entering his 38th year in office.

Most people who work within city government, however, follow a somewhat different path.  Many develop skills and expertise in community-based groups or other nonprofit organizations, often grappling with the most practical and challenging problems at the neighborhood level.  Their knowledge and commitment lead them to city hall, taking on roles that enable them to pursue citywide reforms.  Through their innovations, they make a lasting difference in their cities and then often move on, in many cases becoming champions for important causes at the state or national level.

Such was the path followed by Richard Murphy, former commissioner of New York City’s Department of Youth Services in the early 1990s, who became one of the nation’s leading experts and guiding lights on youth development.  As the head of several national nonprofits, Richard was a source of inspiration and wisdom for me and the National League of Cities, serving on NLC’s Council on Youth, Education, and Families since 2000.  Now we will have to find our way forward without him – Richard was taken from us by a fast-moving cancer on February 14, leaving behind a wonderful legacy of accomplishment and a vast network of admirers who are mourning his loss.

Richard’s journey in the field of youth development began in the neighborhoods of New York City.  At the top of his resume, Richard referenced a chance encounter with a nine-year-old boy at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in the South Bronx and said that the boy’s answer to a simple question – Why aren’t you in school? – launched him on his lifelong quest to expand opportunities for disadvantaged children and youth.

He spent the next two decades as the founder and director of a community-based organization, the Rheedlen Center for Children and Families, with the mission of securing educational access and success for elementary school truants.  Through Rheedlen, Richard established new funding streams for preventive and school-based social services, while also leading the redesign – long before such efforts were in vogue – of a low-performing junior high school into four small high schools (the first new high schools in Harlem in 40 years).  The seeds he planted at Rheedlen continued to bear fruit long after his departure as the organization evolved and grew into what we know today as the Harlem Children’s Zone.

But Richard didn’t stop there.  In 1990, he responded to the call of public service by agreeing to serve as former New York City Mayor David Dinkins’ commissioner of youth services.  At the height of concerns about crime and violence in the city, Richard knew that part of the solution had to be about opportunities for the constructive engagement of young people during out-of-school time.  His visionary leadership led to the creation, as part of the Mayor’s Safe City, Safe Streets initiative, of the first Beacon Schools that opened school doors beyond the traditional 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. school day.   The Beacon School model has since been replicated in major cities across America, including Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

When the Dinkins Administration came to a close, Richard moved to Washington, D.C., and quickly made a major impact on the national scene as director of the Center for Youth Development and Policy Research at what was then the Academy for Educational Development.  He championed the concept of community youth mapping and the replication of community schools, maintaining a relentless focus on building the capacity of local leaders to improve youth outcomes.

In the last years of his life, Richard returned to New York where he promoted access to nutritious food and adequate income, including the development of the nation’s largest Earned Income Tax Credit outreach and tax preparation effort.  Most recently, he devoted most of his time and energies to an ambitious effort focused on “iMapping America,” seeking to harness emerging technologies and what he termed the “collective intelligence of young people” to guarantee all children and youth access to safe and accurate information to make better decisions.

Much will be done and written in the coming months to honor Richard Murphy’s life and contributions to the field of youth development.  He accomplished a great deal, and he also had a wonderful spirit and a huge heart that was apparent to and treasured by so many who had the honor and the joy of working with him.  Richard never lost his sense of optimism, and his belief that we can always make the world a better place for our children and youth.  It’s a spirit and commitment that can serve as an enduring guide for all of us who work on behalf of cities.

To learn more about Richard Murphy’s life and accomplishments, see the New York Times obituary published on February 17, 2013.

Angels on Ice!

The worlds of city economic development and youth development came together for a brief shining moment last week, at the LA Live! entertainment complex in Los Angeles.  Dense new residential and commercial development in and around the complex brings verve and people well into the evening, many nights each week.

With oversize statues of LA sports heroes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wayne Gretzky looming across  the street at the hockey-strike-darkened Staples Center, dozens of Angelenos took to an ice rink fitted out for the holidays.  “Not quite Rockefeller Center, but fun,” commented a New York native on the scene.

Skating action stopped for ten minutes as City of Los Angeles Councilmember Jan Perry joined complex developer AEG in recognizing the Los Angeles Conservation Corps (LACC) and in particular its corpsmember of the year, Ibrahim Francis — on a red carpet rolled out on the ice. Huge LED screens described the many environmental and educational contributions of the LACC, the nation’s largest urban corps which works very closely with the City of Los Angeles and many other partners.

Ibrahim, it turns out, finished high school and earned two college scholarships while working with LACC.  Interviewing for an internship with California State Parks, the agency offered him a job on the spot — no internship needed!  The award and the recognition stand as testimony to Ibrahim’s hard work and to the support LACC and its partners offer to him and several hundred other young people each year.

In the photo: Tamala Lewis and Michael Roth from AEG, Los Angeles City Councilmember Jan Perry and Corpsmember of the Year Ibrahim Francis