Earlier this year, I posted a blog “Can’t See the Forest for the Fields” in which I talked about the arbitrary (for youth) but systemic (for our schools, communities, and organizations) distinction between the notion of “student” and that of “youth”. I also talked about the gap that we create when a young person is a student say from 7 a.m.-2:00 p.m. while in school and then suddenly becomes a youth when he exits the school building and enters the community. Each “sector” has its own unique training, outcomes, expectations, disciplinary practices and on and on and the only consistency is the young person who has to cross these boundaries. I won’t rehash the whole blog here, but feel free to click above and check it out.
Since the time of this initial posting, I have had numerous conversations with community groups who are trying to work with schools and schools who are trying to work with community groups. No one seems to understand why they end up frustrated or at odds because we all genuinely believe we are working in the best interests of our young people.
But, the reality is that for community organizations the “best interests of young people” often means we want youth to be engaged in their community and in issues important to them. We want them to develop informed and powerful voices, to build positive leadership skills and values, to understand conflict resolution, to build effective relationships and so on. This is what we are measured on; this is what our funding says we have to do.
On the other hand, most of our teachers and schools are struggling with the singular ultimatum of success that is standardized testing. They are trying in the “best interests of young people” to get students to pass these tests, and in order to do so to manage their classrooms, to address behavioral and disciplinary issues, to build relationships, and so on. But, ultimately, the students have to pass those standardized tests. This is what our schools are evaluated on; this is what their funding says they have to do.
Our differences are a matter of perspective, approach, and evaluation, not necessarily intent. The dissonance is between setting and outcome, good process and high-stakes accountability, climate and academic performance. And, despite the research, we have failed to make a strong enough case for the interdependence of these elements; or we have at least failed to create enough urgency to focus on changing our current course to support such a case.
The reason I am revisiting this concept is that I recently received an email describing a community that really seems to be working on eliminating this arbitrary gap for our students/youth. They are doing this with an understanding that a quality environment for young people is a quality environment for young people, regardless of content or specific outcomes, regardless of being in-school or out. In other words, there are some universal elements of quality spaces in which young people thrive that we can and should apply both in schools and in community settings.
An excerpt from the email:
This inspiring 12-minute video documents how the Georgetown Divide, a small community in the Sierra foothills of Northern California, has embraced a positive youth development approach across the settings where youth spend time and has anchored that commitment through widespread use of the Youth Program Quality Assessment. In this video, school teachers and youth workers reflect on their own practice in powerful ways, and describe how the cycle of assessment, planning and training works. District administrators and youth organization leaders describe how they are systematically implementing a low-stakes approach to accountability that has empowered staff, improved practice, and resulted in real change for youth.
To view the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79epysezpVs
The fact is that we know the kind of environment in which our young people will positively develop and thrive socially, academically, and otherwise. And yet, we too often define our educational and community settings around content delivery and short-term outcomes rather than our long-term intentions: developing healthy and prepared young people. If both in-school settings and out-of-school settings could at least share a common understanding of the elements of good “programming” for youth and for what makes quality youth spaces, perhaps we could, despite differing content and accountability, better align our collective efforts for the sake of our young people.
Our challenge now is to follow the lead of Georgetown Divide in understanding that the term “youth” in Youth Program Quality does not in fact exclude the concept of “student” and that the term “program” does not exclude “classroom”.
Ironically, we need to follow a town called “Divide” to ensure our schools and communities better work together for the benefit and wellbeing of our young people.
*The same Youth Program Quality Assessment tools and trainings being used by Georgetown Divide are being used around the country in urban, suburban and rural settings. More can be found at the Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality website: http://www.cypq.org/