By Kelly Medinger
Exploring the challenges (and opportunities) facing our young people
My colleague (and voracious reader/information gatherer) Kathleen McCarthy often sends me interesting articles from the field. In this post I’d like to highlight two such articles from The Atlantic that I found to be of particular value, and that greatly impacted my understanding of how we can help our young people grow up to be productive, happy adults.
The first article is “The Activity Gap” by Alia Wong. We read it last summer while conducting research into out-of-school time programs for our BOOST initiative. The article examines the growing divide between the “haves” and “have-nots” in terms of how youth spend their time in the afterschool hours.
Wong begins by painting a picture of Ethan and Nicole – two young people living in Austin – whose lives take dramatically different trajectories because of the world they grew up in.
Their stories are real and link to the findings of a national study published by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform, which shows extracurricular participation is becoming an upper class privilege. It seems more and more afterschool activities these days require parents to have “flexible work schedules, comfortable financial situations, and commitment to their children’s social and intellectual development.” Sadly, this means more and more poor kids are being left on the sidelines.
Wong acknowledges that some might question paying so much attention to afterschool hours, given the problems that face schools themselves. Yet the data tells a convincing story for why afterschool matters. Kids spend more time out of school than they do in school; in fact, 80% of a young person’s life is spent outside of the school day and academic year (Child Trends, 2012). It follows that out-of-school hours are ripe for reaching kids and exposing them to new opportunities, sustaining or strengthening their academic skills, and fostering important relationships and social skills integral to their success in life.
In the second article, “Why Do Some Poor Kids Thrive?” by Alana Semuels, the data and stories hit much closer to home, with the research coming directly out of Baltimore.
Relating the journey from adolescence into adulthood, the article highlights research from the book Coming of Age in the Other America (DeLuca, Clampet-Lundquist, and Edin, 2016). The crux of the story is this: even kids who exhibit a lot of potential and are excelling academically often veer off-track if their environment pushes them to “simply survive” in the short-term. It turns out good grades and the drive to succeed aren’t enough; without a supportive environment (including relationships and living conditions), a teenager or young adult will almost always make decisions for short-term wins rather than long-term gain.
The researchers suggest numerous ways to help these kids, among them: improving neighborhoods so kids don’t rush out on their own just to escape; expanding opportunities in afterschool hours to fuel kids’ passions that help inspire them in tough times; and counseling kids about how seemingly short-term decisions will affect them in the long-run.
For me, these two articles connect in a real and meaningful way. On their face they both point to disadvantages that poor kids face in life that others don’t. But beneath the surface they shed light on the question, How can we help instill the skills, values, and information disadvantaged kids need for upward mobility in life? The answer is complex and multi-faceted. Environment is certainly a big part of the equation. As is how these kids spend their time outside of school, and the relationships they develop with caring adults to help them navigate important life decisions.
These two articles illuminated some important points about the challenges (and opportunities) facing our young people today. I hope you find them as insightful as I did.