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Archived columns by Jane Quinn, Children's Aid Vice President for Community Schools and Director of the National Center for Community Schools. The columns were originally published in Youth Today and are reproduced with permission.

Youth Today is the only independent, nationally distributed newspaper that is read by thousands of professionals in the youth service field.

Some of the issues covered include youth development, juvenile justice, gang and violence prevention, adolescent health, sex and parenting, teen pregnancy, after-school programs and mentoring.

Youth Today Columns by Jane Quinn

In the “good research is a footnote to common sense” department, a new Harvard University study has found that positive developmental experiences in kindergarten have long-term beneficial effects – including higher adult earnings.

When something occurs once, it’s a phenomenon; twice, it’s a pattern; three times, a definite trend. Well, three times in as many weeks, I have participated in meetings at which someone has asked “Whatever happened to youth development? You really don’t hear much about it any more.” One of the questioners observed that youth development “used to be sexy” (really?) and another noted wistfully that funders “used to throw money at it” (how did I miss that?). Despite my skepticism about some of these views, I found myself pondering the fundamental question.

A recent study entitled A Report on the 2007 and 2008 High School Survey of Student Engagement provides some distressing news about the state of American high schools, alongside interesting grist for youth workers’ planning mills. First the headlines...

Several years ago, when foundations and policymakers discovered the obesity crisis in our country – seemingly overnight – I thought we were witnessing just another fad. I mean, hadn’t we all been aware for quite a while that a lot of people were overweight? So why the sudden alarm bells over what seemed like the status quo?

When U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan appeared on the “Charlie Rose Show” in mid-March, he outlined a vision for America’s public schools that has enormous and positive implications for youth organizations across the country. “I think our schools should be open 12, 13, 14 hours a day,” he said. “It’s not just lengthening the school day, but offering a wide variety of after-school activities: drama, arts, sports, chess, debate, academic enrichment, programs for parents, GED, ESL, family literacy nights, potluck dinners.”

At a recent dropout prevention conference in New York state, a panel of five teenagers shared their ideas about what it would take to help all students succeed in school. One of these young people stands out most dramatically in my mind, mainly because of the juxtaposition between how he appeared and what he said.

At a recent session of a youth development program, during a Mad Libs activity that served as an icebreaker, one of the simple warm-up questions generated a disturbing response. Young people were asked to name a course they take in school. After a couple of usual answers (“math,” “social studies”), someone shouted, “test prep.” All of the kids agreed that this was indeed a course at their schools.

Interest in after-school programs for high schoolers is growing around the country, and in many quarters. Several recent national conferences have focused on the topic, as have a number of reports. While there are several reasons for this emerging attention, the single biggest factor is probably our nation’s collective, dismal record on high school graduation.

Everyone knows that reading is fundamental; we even have a national organization by that name. Yet a recent report from the National Endowment for the Arts, “To Read or Not to Read,” makes the case in no uncertain terms that we are quickly becoming a nation of non-readers.

A smart person once observed that opportunity resides at the intersection of need and capacity. I thought of this adage recently as I read two seemingly disparate documents: a report prepared by the Next Generation Youth Work Coalition focusing on current work force challenges in the youth development field (“Growing the Next Generation of Youth Professionals: Workforce Opportunities and Challenges”), and a new book by Marc Freedman titled Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life.

A hot topic in the world of after-school and youth development programs is their role in promoting young people’s academic success. Often missing from this discussion is any sense that there are multiple approaches to integrating academic content into out-of-school time (OST) programs. These approaches – there are at least three – can all be valid if they’re applied appropriately and delivered effectively.

Conventional wisdom says the quality of youth work programs rests in no small measure on the quality of the program staff. But how do you achieve staff quality with the largely part-time, low-wage work force found in many youth service agencies?

Sometimes you have to cross the ocean to get a clearer picture of what is happening in your own country. I just returned from England, where I and some colleagues and trustees from The Children’s Aid Society got to study that country’s services for children during an era of exciting reform. These changes offer many important lessons at a key moment in our own history, as we struggle, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, to understand how so many American children and families have been left behind.

The recently released final report on Mathematica’s study of after-school programs (“When Schools Stay Open Late: The National Evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program”) drew considerably less attention than did its initial report two years earlier, perhaps because it drew essentially the same conclusion: Weak programs produce weak results.

A recent issue of Education Week carried a front-page photograph of a studious octogenarian and urged readers to turn to an inside page, where they found a box with large type that said, “A lifetime of research has led Edmund W. Gordon to the conviction that it is the out-of-school extras that nurture children’s intellect.”

The field of youth development faces major challenges in creating and sustaining our work force. Long treated as a component of our work that was “nice but not necessary,” professional development – the process of attracting, training and supporting youth workers – has undergone important changes over the past 15 years. But those changes have been insufficient.

While the recent presidential election generated much heated discussion about the institution of marriage, the youth work field has quietly harnessed energy around the issue of institutional marriage: new kinds of committed, long-term partnerships that are changing education and youth development practice across the country.

The recent report entitled “Reading at Risk” revealed that, for the first time in modern history, less than half of the adult population of the United States reads literature – a trend that reflects a decline in other sorts of reading as well. The study, by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), pointed out that these trends don’t merely signify lower profits for Amazon.com.

The first time I visited Portland, Ore., some 12 years ago, I knew it was a cutting-edge kind of place. On the airport bus going into the city, I spotted an establishment called Motor Mocha – a drive-through espresso bar. Bear in mind that this was years before every street corner in America sported a Starbucks. I realized immediately that ingenuity was flourishing in the Pacific Northwest.

I have just finished reading a new book about young people that should be required reading for youth workers, teachers and, most especially, policy-makers. Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx, chronicles the fast-paced and heart-wrenching stories of a group of children and youth from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. Journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spent the better part of a decade in their South Bronx neighborhood, seeking to understand their joys and struggles. What emerges is a cautionary tale for adults who truly care about leaving no child behind.

As youth work practitioners, most of us have long believed that effective programs depend in large measure on the availability of competent, caring staff. This belief is now supported by a solid body of multidisciplinary research that is synthesized in an eloquent new book, Bringing Yourself to Work: A Guide to Successful Staff Development in After School Programs.

When I enrolled in a graduate school of social work many years ago, I found myself to be a distinct outsider – the only person in my class of 200 who had majored in economics as an undergraduate. While I’d been studying macroeconomics in my senior year, my fellow students had been learning about human development as psychology majors, or about social problems as sociology majors.

Here’s a fact that may not have yet crossed the radar screen of most youth workers: America is involved in a major wave of new school construction – by most accounts, the largest in recent memory. This building boom creates a strategic opportunity for youth organizations to craft what researcher Milbrey McLaughlin calls “new institutional arrangements.”

Many of the young people that youth agencies serve are about to lose a lot of what they’ve spent the past nine months learning. Research indicates that all young people experience significant learning losses during the summer break from school, and that the magnitude of these declines varies by grade level, subject matter and family income.

Despite several glaring problems, the recent Mathematica Policy Research study reporting first-year findings from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program contains some important lessons for after-school and youth development practitioners.

Here’s a story from the friendly skies. One day last summer, on a flight from Atlanta to New York, I came across the following three newspaper headlines:“Teenage Drug Use at an 8-Year Low.”“Student Privacy Just a Specimen for Profit, Politics.” “Brains of Mice Enlarged.”

I remember those halcyon days when I didn’t have to worry about where money came from. I started my youth work career in the protected employ of a city government, where others were charged with securing program funds.

Now that the ink is dry on the recently reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), it’s time to examine the implications of this legislation for youth work. Of particular note is the section that covers the 21st Century Community Learning Centers – a program designed to open public schools in the non-school hours, expand learning opportunities, and support partnerships between schools and community resources.

Many years ago I attended a dinner party at which the conversation turned to the question, "Has a book ever changed your life?" What ensued was a raucous and engaging discussion that ranged from Doris Lessing to Hermann Hesse to Michael Harrington (my contribution at the time). The question has continued to intrigue me, both professionally and personally. As a youth worker, I have read voraciously - but seldom with that elusive payoff my friends and I described.