Reaching and Engaging Drop Out Youth

This year, 42% of high school students in Chicago Public Schools will not graduate on time. Fortunately, youth media organizations are well poised to serve and engage this important demographic. At its best, our practice is project-based, youth-centered, and empowering. We offer youth the opportunity for reflection and self-assessment. These are the very same qualities that teachers and school administrators are struggling to incorporate into their classrooms.
From my vantage point working with After School Matters (ASM), a city-wide non-profit, I have been fortunate to see many community-based and government organizations develop partnerships in which they share talents and resources in order to better serve more youth. I would like to share some examples of working partnerships that illuminate concrete steps youth media practitioners can take if we choose to develop our practice to focus on the outcomes of the vast number of students who are either not graduating on time or at all.
Drop Out Funding and Support
Despite decreases in funding for youth media, there is still much foundation and government money allocated toward young people who are not on track to graduate. Reaching disengaged youth can be further facilitated through a partnership with a social service organization that can support many of the complex needs of those who are homeless, are adjudicated and/ or have dropped out of school.
For example, for three years Voice of the City (VOTC), a community arts organization, has run a documentary video program in partnership with ASM and Alliance of Local Service Organizations (ALSO), an organization that works to end violence in Chicago’s Humboldt Park and Logan Square communities. By partnering with ALSO, VOTC reaches youth who are not in school, providing them with a rigorous program in which they produce videos about their lives and communities.
The program, which operates during the day, serves clients of ALSO, many of whom are affiliated with rival gangs. ALSO outreach workers help support the participants during program hours and provide services for them during non-program hours. ALSO has recently added a GED program in which all VOTC program participants must enroll. For many of the participants, the VOTC/ALSO program is the only institutional affiliation they maintain and can serve as conduit for reentry into traditional education and/or employment paths.
Paradoxically, losing enrollment often indicates success; several participants have dropped the program to return to school. However, because the partnership has successfully served youth that are almost never served in this kind of programming, funders are more comfortable with fluctuating enrollment.
Working with Schools
Given the educational hurdles facing their student populations, many principals and teachers are also open to closely partnering with youth media practitioners. Many schools have funding for extensive after school programming but lack meaningful programs to fill these hours, a service that youth media practitioners can provide. Since schools are often not in the position to research and seek out partnerships, youth media organizations must present themselves, describe realistic plans, and demonstrate openness to work with schools to improve outcomes.
While partnering with schools won’t necessarily change what teachers are offering during the day, it will bring student-centered, project-based learning into students’ lives. Youth media has the potential to help students develop methods of learning that will help them in their academics and in developing and achieving long-term goals. Great after school programming can also help build enthusiasm about what happens at school and, since most schools will not allow youth to attend after-school programming if they are not present for school, it can help improve attendance.
In some cases, youth media can also partner closely with administrators and teachers to help change school-day learning. We can provide workshops during scheduled professional development days, ongoing support to help teachers reframe their methods, and/or develop sustained teaching partnerships with teachers to transform their curricula.
Youth media practitioners who wish to work within citywide public school systems might consider partnering through a third-party. As schools have an existing relationship with the third party, roles and responsibilities may have already been somewhat defined, and the third party also often brings funding to the project.
For example, Cooperative Image Group (Coop), a small non-profit with only two full-time employees, works in ten Chicago Public Schools to provide arts and media programming through several third-party partnerships. Coop artists offer workshops to many teachers and then partner closely with a smaller number of teachers and their students. The programs have been sustained over multiple years, during which the classroom teachers have gradually modified their teaching methods to be more student-centered and provide consistent opportunities for reflection.
Through its third-party partnerships, Coop has leveraged its limited resources to serve a great number of youth. Furthermore, the terms of agreement do not allow exclusion due to grades or discipline issues, enabling Coop to reach the very students who stand to benefit the most and who might otherwise have been left out.
The Social Justice Academy (SJA) at Kelvyn Park High School is another working example of a strong partnership between teachers, administrators and a community partner. The teaching team includes an English teacher, a Social Studies teacher, and staff from the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), an arrangement that empowers youth to look critically at their school and surrounding community and to take specific actions to address inequities they observe. Students have created booklets based on interviews with parents and community members, produced video documentaries about youth culture in their neighborhoods, and presented recommendations for policy changes to the school board and to local city officials.
Though the SJA directly involves only a limited number of students and teachers, the lessons the teachers have learned are regularly shared within the school and district. SJA teachers (including LSNA staff) workshop with other teachers during district professional development days to develop curricula across disciplines that is student-centered, project-based and empowering.
Call to the Field
Youth media programs are already skilled at providing programs that challenge, support and engage youth. However, practitioners have an opportunity to be intentional in reaching youth that have disengaged from traditional learning.
We can partner with institutions and organizations that serve young people who have become uninterested in education. Many of these partners are better situated to provide the wrap-around services that youth media cannot provide and which might influence youth to participate in our programs and reengage with learning.
We should also keep as a goal the kind of close partnering that can transform day-time learning. Our methods can make our partners better and help reach all students, a goal that is surely in everyone’s interest.
Margaret Catania works as a program specialist in the Program Quality Division at After School Matters in Chicago. She also makes narrative and documentary videos.