Opinion Columns & Blogs

We’re working to improve area’s youth programs

The people working in youth programs are deeply committed to improving the lives of young people. They work long hours, often for low pay, in programs that help kids develop skills and explore new opportunities after school, on weekends and during school breaks.

But not all out-of-school programs work as well as they could. Sometimes the immediate needs of young people take priority over making improvements to the programs themselves. As a result, while many actively help students build a better path through school and into adulthood, others offer little more than a place to hang out.

But how do we measure the quality of programs? How can we help organizations improve? And how can families understand which programs are great, and which are still finding their way?

That’s where The Greater Tacoma Community Foundation’s youth program quality initiative comes in. This effort, supported by the Raikes Foundation and aligned with similar efforts in King and Spokane counties, provides rigorous assessments that lead to concrete recommendations about how programs can better serve young people.

Currently, 17 organizations in Pierce County are participating, including the Peace Community Center, the YMCA, Northwest Leadership Foundation and Communities in Schools of Lakewood. They are learning where their programs are strong, and where they can improve. Long term, we hope that all youth in Pierce County will have access to quality programs.

The benefits are huge. Research shows that participation in quality out-of-school programs can lead to better performance in school and fewer risky behaviors, including drugs, alcohol and gang activity.

The primary focus of the initiative is to raise the caliber of programs by helping staff create spaces where youth can thrive. It is designed to drive continuous professional improvement in nine areas that research shows can help young people grow more connected with school, improve attendance, and build positive relationships with adults – all factors that improve student outcomes.

The initiative also provides an important avenue for programs to meet the Washington State Quality Standards for Afterschool & Youth Development Programs, which were recently established as the common definition of quality statewide and are fully aligned to the initiative’s focus areas.

At Peace Community Center, for example, many of the young people we serve face myriad challenges both in school and at home. Yet many of our staff are AmeriCorps volunteers who are deeply committed to the work but not yet well versed in how best to respond to the complex situations our young people face. The youth program quality initiative helps by identifying concrete ways to support our students and staff and further improve.

For instance, while assessments showed that many parts of our programs were strong, they also revealed that we weren’t giving our youth enough opportunity to lead. We responded by forming a student council that gave them an opportunity to practice leadership skills, including planning field trips. Council members polled their fellow students, suggested trips and mandated a portion of trips be devoted to community service.

That’s just one example of dozens. Our staff now relishes the tangible feedback they receive, which helps them better engage young people.

One of the beauties of this achievable initiative is that it both improves programs and helps meet the state standards. Parents and students should demand programs that meet these benchmarks. Program directors and sponsoring organizations are encouraged to tap The Greater Tacoma Community Foundation’s initiative as a resource in this important work.

Rose Lincoln Hamilton is president and CEO of The Greater Tacoma Community Foundation. Bill Hanawalt is executive director of the Peace Community Center.