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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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Research Description

Overview and Components This study addressed how out-of-school time (OST) programs keep middle and high school youth engaged over time and how the supports that city initiatives provide can help foster youth participation. The programs featured in the study primarily served disadvantaged youth and were located in six cities that have worked toward building OST initiatives: Chicago, Illinois; Cincinnati, Ohio; New York, New York; Providence, Rhode Island; San Francisco, California; and Washington, DC.
Start Date 2008 to 2010
Scope national
Type afterschool
Location urban
Setting public school, community-based organization, recreation center
Participants middle school and high school students
Number of Sites/Grantees 198 programs for the larger survey analysis, 28 for the in-depth study
Number Served 979 youth participated in the 28 in-depth study sites.
Study Details The study brought together survey data from a large sample of programs and in-depth interview data to bring both breadth and depth toward understanding access to and sustained participation in OST programs for older youth.
Funding Level N/A
Funding Sources The Wallace Foundation
Researchers Sarah N. Deschenes, Priscilla M. Little, Heather B. Weiss, and Diana Lee, Harvard Family Research Project

Amy Arbreton, Carla Herrera, and Jean Baldwin Grossman, Public/Private Ventures
Research Profiled Engaging Older Youth: Program and City-Level Strategies to Support Sustained Participation in Out-of-School Time
Research Planned N/A
Reports Available Deschenes, S. N., Arbreton, A., Little, P. M., Herrera, C., Grossman, J. B., & Weiss, H. B. (with Lee, D.). (2010). Engaging older youth: Program and city-level strategies to support sustained participation in out-of-school time. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project. Available at:


Research Sarah N. Deschenes
Senior Researcher
Harvard Family Research Project
3 Garden St
Cambridge, MA 02138
Tel: 617-495-9108
Profile Updated May 10, 2011

Research Study: Engaging Older Youth: Program and City-Level Strategies to Support Sustained Participation in Out-of-School Time

Research Description

Research Purpose To answer the following questions: What are the characteristics of high-participation OST programs that support sustained participation, as measured by retention? How do these characteristics differ for middle school and high school youth? What strategies are city initiatives implementing to support access to programs and sustained participation, and how do OST programs perceive the usefulness of city-level strategies for achieving their participation goals?
Research Design

Non-Experimental: The six cities in the study were chosen because they have an intermediary or government agency coordinating funding and providing services for OST programs, a management information system (MIS) or database to keep track of attendance and participation, extensive programming aimed at middle and high school youth, and a focus on low-income youth and distressed neighborhoods. After identifying the six cities, researchers then identified 346 programs in these cities with high participation rates (at least 44%) among middle and high school youth—based primarily on MIS data gathered by the city-level OST initiatives—and administered a survey to program leaders. Out of 198 programs that returned a survey (57% response rate), researchers selected 28 programs for in-depth interviews with program leaders. Researchers also interviewed 47 city-level respondents (e.g., lead agency representatives, MIS developers, city staff responsible for quality improvement and professional development).

The researchers also included data gathered through discussions with a “Community of Practice,” which served to help the researchers vet and expand on the ideas coming from the survey and interviews. The Community of Practice comprised teams of three or four individuals from 12 cities—the 6 research sites and 6 other cities working on city-level support for OST—as well as consultants and representatives from national organizations. The group met six times over the course of the study.

The quantitative analysis focused on the program practices and structural features associated with retention (i.e., duration of participation) of youth in programs. For this study, researchers defined high retention as retention of 50% or more of a program’s youth participants for 12 months or more. The qualitative analysis focused on identifying program practices that respondents cited as relating to greater retention and creating a picture of what it takes in programs and at the city level to keep youth engaged in programs over time. Throughout the analysis, the researchers cross-walked findings from the interviews and the survey against each other to refine their understanding of participation.

Data Collection Methods

Document Review: Researchers gathered information during site visits and via online searches to supplement understanding of the city initiatives and of how programs were working to recruit and retain older youth.

Interviews/Focus Groups: The interviews with program leaders covered program activities and structure, the youth who participated, recruitment practices and challenges, attendance issues, retention practices and challenges, developmental issues for older youth, and experience in an OST initiative. The interviews with city-level respondents addressed their role in the city OST initiative, how the initiative supported recruitment and retention, partnerships to support OST programs, data and evaluation, and city contexts for OST.

The Community of Practice group discussed themes related to participation and emerging findings.

Secondary Source/Data Review: Each city provided individual-level attendance data from its respective MIS to document participation rates over the 2007–2008 school year. In addition, each city provided demographic information on participants (most commonly ethnicity/race, gender, and age or grade level).

Surveys/Questionnaires: The program survey was designed to generate information about program activities and features, staffing, youth participants, family involvement, use of data, recruitment and orientation practices, practices for fostering and supporting engagement, and involvement with the OST initiative in the city.

Data Collection Timeframe Data were collected in 2008 and 2009.


Formative/Process Findings

Recruitment/ Participation Five program characteristics were significantly associated with high retention rates for both middle and high school youth: Providing many leadership opportunities to youth in the programs (p < .001), keeping staff informed about youth outside programs (p < .05), being community-based (p < .001), enrolling 100 or more youth (p < .01), and holding regular staff meetings (p < .01).

The following retention practices, while not statistically related to retention, were consistently reported in interviews and surveys as being important in engaging older youth: Fostering a sense of community through connections to program staff and peers, providing developmentally appropriate activities and incentives, and engaging families.

The following recruitment practices, while not statistically related to retention, were consistently reported in interviews and surveys as being important in engaging older youth: Using peers and staff as recruiters, using organizational relationships, and matching program attributes to youth needs.

Interviews revealed the following strategies for retaining middle-school youth specifically: Offering youth opportunities to interact with peers; creating structures and routines to make youth feel comfortable and safe; and taking advantage of participants’ willingness to try new things, particularly through peer interaction.

Interviews revealed the following strategies for retaining high-school youth specifically: Focusing programming more on providing opportunities to explore and prepare for college and other post-graduation plans; giving youth more responsibility through job-like programming, apprenticeships, and mentoring; and offering the content and the particular skills older teens want to learn.

City initiatives provided a set of services aimed at increasing OST participation broadly rather than solely for older youth. These services included engaging in citywide recruitment efforts, coordinating information about programs across the city and helping programs network, collecting and using data on OST programs, supporting quality improvement efforts, and providing professional development and technical assistance to programs. Low- and high-retention programs, however, both appeared similar in their use of these strategies.

When asked about the value of city-level supports to their enrollment and engagement goals, 72% of programs in the survey sample agreed that the initiative helped increase their enrollment of older youth, and 68% agreed that the initiative helped them increase engagement of older youth.

The top three city-level supports that programs reported as being the most helpful in aiding their own participation goals were: Increasing connections to other organizations (79%), providing funding (73%), and helping with access to participation data (70%). Furthermore, of the top 10 supports, four related to getting and using information: access to participant tracking information, training on using the data systems, learning best practices, and involvement in program evaluation.

The supports that providers identified as least helpful to their participation goals, with one-quarter or fewer positive responses, were: recruitment/referrals/interviewing of staff and volunteers, coordinating fundraising or grant writing, helping with budgeting or finances, providing curricula, and decreasing competition for funding through coordination of initiative-wide efforts.

Although the overall survey sample indicated that city-level supports were helpful, many of the leaders of the 28 high-participation programs in the interview sample reported feeling that they must rely more on their own program practices for recruitment and retention of older youth than on supports or services at the initiative level.

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