After School Matters focuses on providing teens with paid work experience in various areas of career interest. But another of the city’s largest teen program has a vastly different philosophy: building relationships.
Teen REACH (Responsibility, Education, Achievement, Caring, and Hope) is offered at 107 locations in the Chicago metropolitan area and served nearly 26,000 youth statewide in the 2008-09 fiscal year.
The emphasis is on high-quality relationships among students and between students and adults, says Eddie Anguiano, the director of youth services at Chicago Commons’ Paulo Freire Family Center in New City. Most of the sites also provide services that include homework help; recreational, sports, cultural and art activities; service-learning projects; and life-skills education aimed at preventing substance abuse and violence.
“Teens are looking for someone to look up to – someone to validate their own personal feelings, their ideals about life (and) about their future,” says Anguiano, who has found relationships are a powerful draw for students. If they drop out, he finds them – at home or on the street – and personally convinces them to come back.
“This program is like a family to us,” says Tilden junior Luis Villegas, a Teen REACH participant.
Yet one expert notes drawbacks; for one, the lack of a mechanism for gauging the quality of interactions between teens and adults. The question “What makes a quality program?” is common among after-school programs, especially those for teens.
Charles Smith, executive director of the Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality and a designer of the Youth Program Quality Assessment, reviewed Teen REACH’s quality benchmarks in 2007. The Quality Assessment is being used by the Chicago Out-of-School Time Project, which is focused on working to develop a citywide network of high-quality after-school programs.
Teen REACH has no way to evaluate interactions, something that the assessment tool rates using specific criteria such as whether youth mentor or coach other teens, formally recognize each others’ achievements, or share leadership of group activities with staff.
Smith also found that none of the Teen REACH benchmarks aligned with engagement, another factor that is particularly important for older students.
Overall, the benchmarks seemed similar to those typically crafted by programs—heavily weighted toward organization and administration rather than “the specific elements of adult-child interaction that have positive developmental effects,” Smith says.
Another problem is the inclusion of students of all ages. Despite its name, some Teen REACH programs serve students as young as age 6, which is a turn-off to teens.
Robert Halpern, a professor at the Erikson Institute who has studied after-school programs, says his research confirms that the presence of younger students can be a turn-off to teens who want to be recognized as budding adults. But Halpern also believes that even a focus on peer relationships can be counterproductive.
Young people “sometimes need adults to create settings where they are safe psychologically and physically. Youth programs provide that, but they don’t move kids from where they are,” Halpern says.
His research focuses largely on apprenticeship programs that involve young people in adult-like endeavors, holding them to high standards while at the same time providing for their growth in a particular discipline.
The paid experience provided by After School Matters are not true one-on-one apprenticeships, students do spend time immersed in activities such as video production, lifeguard training, and photography. Some sites also offer unpaid drop-in activities focused on a specific skill.
Smith says the fact that After School Matters is driven by youths’ interests, emphasizes real-world skills, and helps students to form relationships with adults set the stage for a high-quality program.
“Our guess is that they would score very high on the (assessment) pyramid,” he says.
Competition for slots in After-School Matters is fierce, and the program is working with Chicago Public Schools to expand to more entering freshmen.