Just because you built it, doesn’t mean they will come. Afterschool is no field of dreams.
Even with a wonderful curriculum, enthusiastic staff, abundance of supplies and unwavering support from the regular school staff, your program cannot be labeled a success if nobody attends it.
Recruitment issues exist at all grade levels. If you serve younger children (K-4th grade), parents usually ensure that the children attend the program, and the children are less likely to rebel at this age. Attendance is far less dependable at the middle school level. I learned quickly with the first program my wife and I started in 1974 that middle school students vote with their feet. If your program is unappealing to students, they will not attend. Afterschool is really a unique form of “Market Education.” What we are trying to do is sell a product, which is often just more school, targeting the disenfranchised learners who can’t wait for that end of day school bell to ring. Thus, when working with older students consider the following lessons I have learned from all the mistakes I have made.
Students are giving up what they consider to be their time.
To do what? If your program/classes are more of the same instruction that is not working for them during the regular school day, what makes you think they will buy more of it after school? Programs must look, feel, smell and even taste different if you want them to attend.
Embedded disguised learning is a must.
If a student is in need of fraction skills for Algebra, then enroll them in music, cooking, or woodworking classes. These classes should include hands on application of the basic math concepts that they are not getting in the regular school day. If you want different results, be willing to try something different.
Have students take part in the program planning committees to ensure that class offerings pass the “cool and fun to do” test.
Have participants recruit fellow students for the program. Ask them to design slogans, incentives, posters, PA announcements, etc. Convince/target popular students to join the program, and have popular teachers participate. Word of mouth is the most powerful tool for drawing participants.
Students must be able to have leadership roles that include making real decisions and delegating tasks.
Create opportunities for older students to work with younger ones. Everyone likes to feel important. An older student who has a hard time interacting with peers or adults may get a boost in confidence and communication from working with a younger student who looks up to him or her.
Offer students opportunities to deal with real social matters and skills. Situations like these appeal strongly to adolescents.
Have students participate in the interviewing process when selecting new staff members.
When planning family activities, be sure to provide time for the young people to interact as a group.
Some adolescents shy away from being seen in public with their families.
Avoid recruiting/targeting only “at-risk” students.
If what you are doing looks like summer school, retention class, or special education you will not have willing customers. It is easy for an unwilling customer to get banned from your program.
Offer grown-up activities such as a trip to the theatre (not movie), or a meal at a nice restaurant.
Establish programs that move students out of a narrow, closed regimen, and into the outlying community.
Everyone enjoys activities that are “real life”, as opposed to “make believe”. Produce real products, movies, shows and publications that have deadlines and public viewing. Students rise to the occasion when they know that others will view their product.
Regardless of what adults want out of the programs they run for youth an essential key to success is the ability to create a “kid friendly” environment that provides for physical and emotional safety. Students need to feel connected, if the program doesn’t meet their needs, if they aren’t having fun, they don’t participate. The fundamental building block is establishing a culture of mutual respect. The “do as I say not as I do” approach won’t fly. I have found that developing positive youth development is possible when you are in possession of an arsenal of simple strategies for engagement. They are as follows:
- Work from purpose.
- Have a blueprint filled with intentions and objectives.
- Know why you are doing things, and know what you are doing.
- Know what you are trying to accomplish and continually refer back to that purpose as you make moment-to-moment decisions.
Create a Sense of Belonging
- Create a respectful and respecting work place or environment.
- Help each participant feel they are a valuable and contributing member.
- Participants must feel physically and emotionally safe.
- Participants must feel that they are a part of what is going on (connected).
Establish a Social Contract
- Establish guidelines about how people will treat each other in the program (core values).
- Involve input from the participants themselves.
- Group values are agreed upon and made public.
- Values must be revisited from time to time and kept fresh.
- Almost all youth programs should, over time, involve some kind of transfer of leadership from the staff to its participants.
- There needs to be an intentional empowerment of youth. A blueprint should exist to help youth make qualitative decisions affecting their program experiences.
Encourage Positive Behaviors
- Identify and reinforce positive behaviors (actions consistent with the Social Contract)
- In order for staff to reinforce positive behavior, they must first have clear and specific ‘snap shots’ of what defines such behaviors.
Focus on Process
- In high quality youth programs it’s not really about the activities, it’s about values, relationships and how people treat each other.
- Exciting and innovative programs and activities are the vehicle, not the purpose.
The best advice I could ever give is to highlight your success at every opportunity and ensure that the teachers, parents, community, and especially your critics, know about everything that is going on. Make it the hottest new thing that all want to attend! Not the sentencing to extra torture because I am a failure!
Those who know me know that I get up quite early. Usually, as today, by 3:30 I am up working or some project and having my morning substitute for breakfast, a cup of vanilla cream coffee, two packets of Splenda, a splash of sugar-free hazelnut cream with cinnamon floating on top.
Author: Gary Moody
Gary Moody is an educator, motivational speaker, staff trainer, artist, musician and writer. His expertise in curriculum, programming and youth development comes from over 35 years teaching, coaching and working as a principal and county administrator throughout numerous California Public Schools. During his career he has worked with all grades, special education, college, adult, and corporate America. Gary was selected in 1991 as a National Danforth Leadership Scholar and received his Masters Degree in Educational Leadership and Curriculum Development from Fresno State. Gary currently serves as the governor’s appointee for the Afterschool Advisory Committee for Before and After School programs and consults for the Fresno County Office of Education providing training, curriculum development and quality assurance for over 140 after-school programs.
In 1993 Gary was chosen California Middle Level Educator of the Year mainly due to his innovative after-school academy called REACH (Recreation, Enrichment, Art, Computers and Homework). He was hired by the California Department of Education as a Consultant where he assisted in launching the state funded After-School Learning and Safe Neighborhood Partnership Program. Along with Bonnie Reiss, Gary launched Arnold’s All-Stars After-School Adventures in four Los Angeles inner-city middle schools in the fall of 2001. Gary played a vital role is assisting Governor Schwarzenegger’s Proposition 49 campaign and continues to assist the Governor in preparation for implementation. Gary was an original member of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers task force and served for several years as the Northwest and Southwest regional consultant for the National Center for Community Education.