Central Indiana is home to an amazing variety of out-of-school programs for youth, ranging from summer camps and scouting to academic and arts enrichment to mentoring and leadership development opportunities. There are many different ways for youth programs to meet the needs of young people and foster positive youth development, and there is healthy debate among youth development professionals over what and how this should be done. Yet there is research to suggest that quality matters in youth programming; young people who attend high quality programs tend to do better than those who participate in mediocre programs, and it’s even possible for a program to have a negative effect on kids (if things go horribly wrong).
So how can we know whether a program is high quality, and more importantly, how can we start using this information to improve youth programming in our communities? Happily, a scientifically valid and reliable tool to measure youth program quality exists and is already in use in Marion County: the Youth Program Quality Assessment (YPQA), which was developed by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation. The YPQA measures various aspects of four key components of quality youth programs: safety, support, interaction, and engagement. It is based on extensive empirical research and works in all settings and scales. Rather than looking at the usual outcome measures that only tell part of the story, the YPQA measures program quality at the point of service—where there may be the greatest impact on young people.
MCCOY has facilitated the YPQA process for several cohorts of local youth-serving organizations, and recently offered its own staff the opportunity to go through the YPQA External Assessor training. Although strictly speaking YQPA external assessors are supposed to have direct program experience (and I have very little, being a career fundraiser), I jumped at the chance to go through the training and learn more about what constitutes a quality youth program. I definitely enjoyed the experience, although it was a lot to process (and two and a half long, exhausting days). I always enjoy meeting program staff; their dedication and wisdom keep me inspired to do what I do. I think their thoughtful questions and analysis of different subtleties in the scenario videos we watched helped me eventually pass the qualification test, since I had quite a learning curve to overcome.
The YPQA assessments for the current cohort will take place over the coming months, and I look forward to playing my part in this important step for the Indianapolis youth development community. I do have an ulterior motive; the YPQA will also help advance the aims of the Early Intervention and Prevent (EIP) initiative, the subject of my work at MCCOY, which will better coordinate nonprofit services so that children and families get the services they need when they need them to reduce the risk of child abuse, neglect, and delinquency. We are currently hard at work preparing a strategic plan for the EIP initiative and I am certain that program quality—and our experience with the YPQA—will have a strong influence on our work.