Youth voice key in development of new quality standards

If you ask a young person what makes a good after-school program, do you know what they’d say?

In Detroit, we actually do – because we asked.

In our work to improve meaningful graduation rates, what happens out of school is just as important as what happens in the classroom. That’s why youth development – after-school and summer programming and youth employment – is one of our focus areas.

And ensuring quality is one of our goals. After all, if young people show up at a program that is low in quality, they a) probably are not likely to return and b) aren’t going to grow in the ways we’d hope.


A young Detroiter shares his thoughts during a roundtable discussion about youth development quality at the Matrix Center in Osborn last April. // Photo by Paul Engstrom

But quality means a lot of different things, depending who you ask. In order to get serious about it, we first had to get on the same page about what we’re talking about when we say quality. So in the last year, a flurry of activity has happened to define what exactly quality means here in Detroit.

Through the work of the Youth Development Resource Center, my colleague and executive director Sara Plachta Elliott combed through quality guidelines from 13 other cities and states. The core concepts in many were the same. She also checked available research to see where those concepts are supported by studies and data.

The research created a clear starting point as eight factors that rang true for the work in Detroit were repeatedly linked to quality. But it was important to add Detroit-specific layers by asking both the city’s young people and youth workers what they thought. And to come up with a final document that had the right tone.

“We wanted to create something that was accessible,” Sara said, “and that reflected our community-based youth development focus.”

In April, with the help of the Youth Development Alliance, Sara held round-table discussions with youth from our six neighborhoods, asking them how those big concepts – heady things like diversity and safe and supportive environments – actually feel to them. How would they describe those concepts in their own words?

Their responses were captured, and became the focal point of the finished standards. So when the standards say, “Quality Staff & Support” matters, it’s contextualized by the direct comments from the youth, who bring it down to earth with statements like:  “Staff and volunteers should be trained to listen first and not judge. They should know what to say back to the youth. They should be trained in a special way to understand the youths’ frustrations.”

Says Sara: “One of the biggest thing we heard is that they wanted adults to listen to them more without lecturing them or without judgment. They also wanted programs to be active and hands-on, vs. lecturing.  They wanted adults to not make assumptions that they’re a good environment or a bad environment.”

Similar conversations were held with youth workers, and their words are also included verbatim.

According to Sara, Detroit is the first major urban center to put youth voice at the center of these standards. We’re excited about that.

I’m also excited about talking about what quality means is not happening only with our youth development work, but across the Foundation’s work. Standards are needed – and must align – in all of our program areas, and that conversation is underway. I’ll blog again soon to share more about that and why I think it is so important.

For now, I want to congratulate Sara for this accomplishment. This is a much-needed tool for the tool box of all Detroit youth workers. I hope it’s one that they turn to again and again.

Visit the Youth Development page to download the standards.

Kristen McDonald is the Skillman Foundation's vice president, program & policy. Follow her on Twitter @kristemc.


Youth voice key in development of new quality standards
Thanks for sharing the standards with the community. The Foundation's commitment to youth development is greatly appreciated by those of us who have worked or volunteered in after-school programs. We can use the standards throughout Detroit to improve youth programs.

Garland Doyle
10/10/2014 at 7:42 pm