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Sherri Lauver from HFRP reviews implementation data from a range of evaluations to propose a set of strategies for recruiting and retaining youth participation in out-of-school time programs.¹

When youth participate in high quality school- or community-based after school programs, they are likely to benefit in a myriad of ways. Students cannot benefit from after school programs, however, if they do not attend them. Unfortunately, due to busy schedules, claims of boredom, or desire for freedom on the part of youth, low attendance is the norm in many programs for middle and high school students. Participation in these programs dwindles during the critical transition from elementary to middle school, though students continue to need caring adult role models and interesting out-of-school activities.

This article culls insights from a synthesis of evaluation research available in HFRP’s Out-of-School Time Program Evaluation Database² to offer guidance on student recruitment and participation in after school programs. As Hollister (2003) asserts, “A major contribution that can be made through evaluation studies not aimed at measuring the impact on long-term outcomes is to isolate better strategies for boosting and sustaining participation during this transition [from elementary to middle school] and continuing into the middle school years.” Therefore, all evaluations in the database that contained detailed findings on youth recruitment and participation were examined, as well as related literature in the after school field. The following promising strategies are proposed for recruiting and retaining youth participation in after school programs.

Reach out Directly to Youth and Their Parents
Rather than relying on posters, flyers, or referrals to generate interest, programs can benefit from reaching out directly to youth and their families. Phone calls and visits are an effective means of increasing local interest in these programs. Youth participants are often a program’s most effective recruiters or ambassadors (McLaughlin, 2000). If poor participation is due to youth’s misperceptions about the quality of a program, then current participants may offer an honest account of program activities and of what potential participants can expect. Street outreach has also been touted as particularly effective for recruiting teens, and some programs hire outreach workers specifically for this task (Herrera & Arbreton, 2003).

Related Resource

This article is based on an upcoming HFRP brief entitled Attracting and Sustaining Youth Participation in After School Programs. Part of our Issues and Opportunities in Out-of-School Time Evaluation series, this brief analyzes the research evidence on recruitment and retention in after school programs and offers promising strategies for sustaining youth participation. To be notified when this brief is available on our website, sign up for our out-of-school time updates email.

Match Program Schedules to Youth’s Needs
While many elementary students and their parents may be able to commit five days a week to out-of-school time activities, this option often does not work for older youth, who have other responsibilities and choices. Five-day-a-week registrations may work if the expectations are clear and attendance is enforced; however, they appear to work best for elementary students. Also, while these programs may increase the overall number of days a student attends, they may simultaneously restrict the number of participants interested in attending (Grossman et al., 2002).

These problems are particularly acute for older youth in underserved communities, who may participate only when they are offered a flexible schedule where they can drop in for some activities. A choice of activities, organized into 8-week blocks, may also increase participation because it offers students the flexibility of participating in the program while continuing to participate in other activities.

Drop-in programs, where there is no expected commitment, are often blamed for low participation levels. But these programs may also offer the flexible programming sought by participants, particularly those most at risk and unwilling to make commitments. This structure may also prevent a program from unwittingly “creaming off the top” more motivated or advantaged participants. While drop-in programs have certain disadvantages in terms of reaching program goals (e.g., offering participants a high intensity learning environment), they may appeal to students who have busy schedules, or who would otherwise not participate at all.

Allocate Program Slots for At-Risk Youth
At-risk students are those with a higher likelihood of school failure. They live in socially disorganized communities and they may have troubled family lives, use drugs, and have higher levels of school absences (Weisman, Soulé, & Womer, 2001; Lauver, 2002). These students may need these programs most, but are often disengaged with school.

School-based after school programs have successfully involved at-risk students by (1) working closely with teachers to identify and encourage them to participate, (2) earmarking a certain number of program slots for hard-to-reach children, and (3) hiring staff members who demonstrate an ability to relate well to these youth (Grossman et al., 2002; Forum for Youth Investment, 2003). Community-based programs are also important because they complement school and family resources in providing at-risk youth the additional support services they need.

Recruit Pairs or Groups to Join Together
Research indicates that youth with friends who participate in after school programs are more likely than others to participate themselves (Anderson-Butcher, Newsome, & Ferrari, 2003). We often overlook this finding as a potential strategy for recruitment and retention. There is little information in the program evaluation literature about ways to increase participation rates by recruiting groups of friends, yet doing so may be an effective way to increase attendance.

Attract Youth With Energetic, Trustworthy Program Staff
When youth are happy with their after school program, they describe it as a family. They develop trusting, caring relationships with the after school staff members (McLaughlin, 2000; Warren, 2002, Wright, 2004). Successful staff members enjoy participating in rather than simply supervising activities, and they are representative of participants in both gender and ethnicity (Herrera & Arbreton, 2003).

Mix Interesting, Fun Activities With Relaxation Time
A variety of activities, such as sports, homework help, the arts, or community service, may attract a diverse group of participants. In neighborhoods with few alternatives, a mixture of activities is even more important, because students consistently state that activity choices matter to them.

Variety reduces boredom and encourages regular attendance (Grossman et al., 2002; Lauver, 2002; McLaughlin, 2000; Walker & Arbreton, 2001; Reisner, Russell, Welsh, Birmingham, & White, 2002). Diverse activities may promote academic achievement, physical and mental health, and overall positive development while offering students a break from traditional classroom instruction. Some youth will be more easily drawn to less structured activities, such as pick-up basketball, while other students prefer an organized group activity (e.g., theater production or baseball) with clear goals. Another strategy for engagement is to offer activities that tend to be missing from the school day, such as arts activities that have been eliminated from the traditional school curriculum.

Link an “Academic Agenda” to an Engaging Project
The evaluation literature suggests that youth will not tolerate two or three more hours of “school” in the after school setting. Yet many urban schools feel enormous pressure to provide students with additional academic instruction in preparation for high-stakes exams, often at the expense of artistic or recreational activities. We found, however, that several after school programs (e.g., arts programs) offer a “hidden” dose of academic enrichment, while successfully retaining youth through engaging activities.

Offer Opportunities for Leadership, Community Service, and Paid Employment
After school programs struggle to keep teens interested and involved. Participation in teen programs typically plummets when teens reach 15 or 16 and start having opportunities for paid employment. Some programs have found that leadership opportunities help teens to know that their contributions are important to the organization. Rewards for strong leadership, such as opportunities to travel to teen conferences, are especially effective (Wright, 2004). Teen programs that sustain student interest and have positive effects for teens often include community service or employment (Eccles & Gootman, 2002; Hollister, 2003; Kirby, 2001; Sawhill & Kane, 2003).

Participation depends on whether youth are sufficiently engaged to stay involved in a program long enough to reap its potential benefits. Practitioners, parents, and communities should seek to understand promising strategies for recruiting and retaining youth participation in after school programs so that youth can reap the benefits from these programs.

Anderson-Butcher, D., Newsome, W. S., & Ferrari, T. M. (2003). Participation in Boys and Girls Clubs and relationships to youth outcomes. Journal of Community Psychology, 31(1), 39–55.

Eccles, J., & Gootman, J. A. (Eds.). (2002). Community programs to promote youth development. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Forum for Youth Investment. (2003, July/August). Quality counts. Forum Focus, 1(1).

Grossman, J. B., Price, M. L., Fellerath, V., Jucovy, L. Z., Kotloff, L. J., Raley, R., et al. (2002). Multiple choices after school: Findings from the Extended-Service Schools Initiative. Philadelphia: Public/Private Ventures.

Herrera, C., & Arbreton, A. J. A. (2003). Increasing opportunities for older youth in after-school programs: A report on the experiences of Boys & Girls Clubs in Boston and New York City. Philadelphia: Public/Private Ventures.

Hollister, R. (2003). The growth in after-school programs and their impact. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Kirby, D. (2001). Emerging answers: Research findings on programs to reduce teen pregnancy. Washington, DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

Lauver, S. C. (2002). Assessing the benefits of an after-school program for urban youth: An impact and process evaluation. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

McLaughlin, M. (2000). Community counts: How youth organizations matter for youth development. Washington, DC: Public Education Network.

Reisner, E. R., Russell, C., Welsh, M., Birmingham, J., & White, R. (2002). Supporting quality and scale in after-school services to urban youth: Evaluation of program implementation and student engagement in the TASC After-School Program’s third year. Washington, DC: Policy Studies Associates.

Sawhill, I. V., & Kane, A. (2003). Preventing early childbearing. In I. V. Sawhill (Ed.), One percent for the kids: New policies, brighter futures for America’s children. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Walker, K. E., & Arbreton, A. J. A. (2001). Working together to build Beacon Centers in San Francisco: Evaluation findings from 1998–2000. Philadelphia: Public/Private Ventures.

Warren, C. (with Feist, M., & Nevarez, N.). (2002). A place to grow: Evaluation of the New York City Beacons. Final report. New York: Academy for Educational Development.

Weisman, S. A., Soulé, D. A., & Womer, S. C. (with Gottfredson, D. C.). (2001). Maryland After School Community Grant Program: Report on the 1999–2000 school year evaluation of the phase 1 after-school programs. College Park, MD: University of Maryland.

Wright, D. (2004). White paper on attendance and retention (Working Paper). Somerville, MA: YouthBuild Academy for Transformation.

¹ This article summarizes the findings detailed in a forthcoming HFRP Issues and Opportunities in Out-of-School Time Evaluation brief entitled Attracting and Sustaining Youth Participation in After School Programs. To be notified when this brief becomes available, sign up for our out-of-school time updates email.
² Click here to view the database.

Sherri Lauver, Consultant, HFRP

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