Episode 7: Blog – Should Youth Development Agencies Start Their Own Schools?

rebecca-fabianoBy Rebecca Fabiano, Senior Consultant
Development Without Limits

It was really refreshing to listen to this recent podcast of Please Speak Freely. There were so many moments when I wanted to shout “YES!” in complete agreement as I listened to guest Rich Berlin, Executive Director of Harlem RBI and the Chairman of Dream Charter School.

One idea that resonated with me was Mr. Berlin’s description of why he does this work, “I do this because I believe in it and I know if everyone did this the world would be better,” which aligns with my own values and path that led me to working with youth. Two other ideas that stood out for me were his comment on how we can ‘assess’ the quality of an after school program in about 36 seconds – that even with tools like the YPQA (formerly known as, “High Scope”) and other similar assessments, we know in our gut if something is quality or not – and that the work we do is “incredibly important but not that complex.”

I was most interested in hearing Mr. Berlin describe why Harlem RBI decided to open a charter school. For almost seven years, I ran a school-based afterschool program at a public high school in New York City. Young people, parents and teachers often commented on how our afterschool program was like a mini-school within the school, and I have often thought about how schools could be different (and safer and more effective) if youth development principles and strategies were applied in the school day, and wondered what it would be like to build a school around positive youth development principles.

At the core of positive youth development and the focus of Out of School Time (OST) programs are concepts like creating a space that is physically and emotionally safe, establishing and developing positive relationships between adults and peers, and among peers; providing opportunities for youth to connect, be productive and have access to meaningful experiences, and providing challenging and engaging learning opportunities. In after school or OST programs, we often integrate the literacy and numeracy skills so that when coupled with ‘soft’ skills (sometimes also known as 21st Century or life skills), we help to young people become prepared, skilled, and productive citizens.

Mr. Berlin points out that Harlem RBI does incorporate math and reading, but that is not the focus of their programs, moreover, it’s not what the program is good at, nor why kids come to the program. Mr. Berlin acknowledges that due to poor policies, many OST programs get ‘forced’ into trying to take on the task of making gains in reading and writing, when the programs don’t have the resources, nor the staff with the appropriate skills to do so. He goes on to state that young people do need to learn reading and writing and while there are many ways to do that both in school and after school, OST programs should not take on the task of fixing what’s not working in schools. Though he acknowledges that most OST professionals would probably agree with him (I certainly do), I lean towards Eric’s point that it’s not the common position that people take publically. I think the more typical situation is that OST programs see funding opportunities and try to ‘figure out’ what the grant is asking them to do, and that sometimes means pushing aside the things that it does well for the sake of funding.

One of Harlem RBI’s motivators for opening a school was that they needed more time to be able to develop the ‘hard skills’ to help youth realize their dreams, but Mr. Berlin didn’t want to give up the time needed to develop the soft skills that help youth to recognize their potential. In his view, the only way to do that was to extend their time with their participants. Not wanting to turn the OST program “into something else”, Harlem RBI decided to take advantage of the opportunity to develop a school, and intentionally drew from their OST, social services and family services that already existed.

This is an interesting parallel to the national trend of Extended Learning Time (ELT)which is usually about schools getting students to spend more time in formal learning activities, with varying degrees of involvement by community partners.

Whereas schools either extend the hours in the school day or the school year, sometimes partnering with an OST programs to do so, in the case of Harlem RBI, they essentially extended the time the spent with youth in their OST programs into the school-day hours and created Dream Charter School. They have the same desire to create extended learning time for youth, but wanted to do it in a way that did not compromise the things that they know work.

While the goals of most OST programs are aligned with some of the goals of the ELT movement, I rarely hear the discussion around ELT even touch upon the idea of a holistic approach to child and youth development, or the opportunity to deepen connections with the community. It seems to focus on adding more time for academics, which is why I often have a negative visceral reaction when people talk about ELT. I feel anxious because I worry that by extending the school day, we are going to have to push aside the things that OST programs do well. As Mr. Berlin says, educating the whole child incudes being able to “know your R’s”, but not at the expense of focusing on the life skills that OST programs develop.

And so that leaves me to wonder, should more nonprofits follow Harlem RBI’s lead? I am excited about the possibility of OST programs and professionals starting schools because they too see the benefit of extending their time with youth. And I am hopeful that this perspective will be valued in the education reform conversation.

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Please Speak Freely

On Please Speak Freely, Eric Gurna, founder of Development Without Limits interviews leading thinkers, artists and others to shed light on key issues and explore different perspectives about youth development and education. The idea is to get past the platitudes and institutional positions, and have honest, nuanced conversations about things that really matter to young people and communities. Please Speak Freely guests include:

  • Raffi, Children’s Troubadour and Founder of the Centre for Child Honouring
  • Alfie Kohn, Author of several books including Punished By Rewards and The Schools Our Children Deserve
  • Dr. Pedro Noguera, Professor of Education at New York University
  • Karen Pittman, President & CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment
  • Tony Smith, Former Superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District
  • Lenore Skenazy, “America’s Worst Mom” and Author of Free-Range Kids

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