6 Youth Development Strategies for Working in Rural Communities

Throughout 2016, Don Carpenter (Senior Program Officer at the Lerner Foundation) has been traveling around Maine and speaking to leaders in the field of youth development. He learned from their insights about the specific challenges of working effectively with youth in rural Maine communities, and discovered some unique strategies that organizations around the state have developed to creatively address these challenges.  We want to share several youth development strategies that are helping to raise the aspirations of Maine students, and highlight some of the organizations that we are learning from.


1. Due to lack of resources, youth-serving community-based organizations are partnering with public schools.

 Leading by example:  


Seeds of Independence (pictured above) offers the Grit Leadership Initiative, modeled after Epiphany School in Boston. Grit is designed to provide a structured and supportive after-school program for children identified by their schools as most in need of additional support. Seeds of Independence partners with educators, counselors, mentors, and volunteers to help youth set goals and achieve milestones. “We provide at-risk youth with the additional academic oversight and social/emotional support they desperately need to succeed. By providing stable, loving, disciplined, and cooperative environments and programming, we are able get to know our youth, their families, and their academic communities. These connections, in turn, give us keen insights into the multiple struggles they face individually and collectively.” For more information on Seeds of Independence, and their programming, visit seedsofindependence.org.  


2. Public schools are partnering with youth-serving community-based organizations to expand horizons outside the classroom and develop a broader base of community support for students.

Leading by Example:  


Bath Middle School (RSU #1) (pictured above) is an Expeditionary Learning School. 6th, 7th, and 8th grade programs offer contextual, nature-based adventure activities outside the walls of the classroom to provide a deeper learning opportunity for students. Each year, students participate in different community-based activities, week-long residential programs at the Ecology School, and week-long expeditionary canoe trips led by Chewonki. “Each tier of our adventure-based middle school experiences guides students to realize the positive effects of working in the service of others. Whether it’s a beach cleanup, learning minimum impact camping practices, collecting data on invasive species, organizing a community meal, or doing trail construction, students’ look outside themselves because of the experiences we provide them.” For more information on Bath Middle School and their programs, visit flowexpedition.blogspot.com.


Mountain Valley Middle School (pictured above) built experiential learning opportunities into their programming so that students have strong foundations for high school and life. Mountain Valley takes a community approach to addressing the challenges that students face in rural Maine, and as a school they celebrate their collective successes achieving that goal.  “We use data to create individual plans [for students] that provide extension or intervention in academics and behavior reformation. We use the data to track student attendance and work with community groups to encourage students to consistently attend school…Five years ago, our average daily attendance was below 88%. We have worked hard to encourage students to attend school. Over the last five years we have raised our average daily attendance to 94%. This year, we are currently at 98% and rising. We are proud of our students!” For more information on the great work Mountain Valley Middle School is doing, visit /mountainvalleymiddleshcool/.


3. In response to the family income-based achievement gap present in many rural schools, there is increased focus on fostering social and emotional development and building nurturing relationships as critical components of increasing academic achievement.   

Leading by Example:  


The Game Loft (pictured above) encourages youth to make their own decisions by engaging with each other and with adults through non-electronic games. Game Loft believes that “academic success seldom happens in a bubble.” Through the Circles of Care program a youth becomes the “president” of his or her “board of directors.” The board is made up of staff, volunteers and community members who focus on the student’s strengths and interests to help the student as a whole person. “Sometimes value and support comes from the family or other supports in the community, but when those are absent or inadequate, new supports must be created. A young person entering the Game Loft finds a system of adults and peers who share common interests, support each other, and learn new skills together.” Through the Circle of Care program, volunteers have helped youth get housing, attend events, become advocates at school, return to and graduate from school, build lasting and meaningful relationships in the community, and become leaders in achieving their own success. As a community, youth come together to help each other, and in turn themselves. For more information about the programming that Game Loft offers, visit thegameloft.org.



4.  Youth-serving organizations are using peer mentors to help raise the aspirations of younger students in rural communities.

Leading by Example:


Lubec Community Outreach Center (pictured above) knows the children within the community personally, and that allows them to meet kids where they are and assist in their development in meaningful ways. Because of this, kids are both included and trust the staff and volunteers at a young age. Youth come back to be hired as staff in the summer program. That opportunity provides youth with the opportunity to mentor younger kids in the program while reinforcing leadership and life skills that they have learned. “This year we instituted our first scholarship for a young man that has worked in our summer program for three years. The first year he was shy, quiet, and unsure of his own ability to impact. This year he was a leader as we watched him mentor the younger staff and the children. As he drove away to attend college for the first time in another part of the State he did so with a little bit more money from the scholarship, which is now named after him, but more importantly, he did so knowing that he had made a difference.” For more information on Lubec Outreach, and their programming, visit www.lubecoutreach.org.


5. More Experience Needed! Some community organizations and schools are complementing traditional education by focusing on entrepreneurial opportunities to raise post-secondary aspirations.

Leading by Example:


Harpswell Coastal Academy (pictured above) is a charter school where the learning process takes place in and out of the classroom. Students spend a lot of time out in the field, visiting factories, businesses and farmlands, in order to help youth to identifying and addressing community-based problems. "We have found that our students respond well to hands-on, place-based education, which involves adult mentors and guides. ...when students have opportunities to connect in a meaningful way, especially with professionals, their learning takes on a whole new meaning and their level of engagement—and hence aspiration—increases significantly." Recently, the Town of Harpswell has partnered with HCA to have students help track and measure tides. The project is meant to study the impact that global warming will have on road beds and property close to the ocean. The real life experience places youth at the front lines of a community issue and gives them not only hands-on experience, but "the opportunity to learn and explore in a contextual manner, and experience success at a level that matters to them." For more information on Harpswell Coastal Academy and their programing, please visit harpswellcoastalacademy.org.

6. Organizations that once may have employed broad-based, “one and done” programs are shifting their program delivery systems towards multi-year, deep-impact youth development models.

Leading by Example:  


Trekkers (pictured above) has developed a six-year mentoring program that follows students from 7th grade through 12th grade. We believe that this long-term, committed, flexible and developmentally appropriate approach to raising aspirations has been the key to our deep impact.” Trekkers is able to do this through their programs, which emphasize trust, and meeting students where they are at in their lives. 83% of students who start the program in 7th grade stay with the program through graduation. Once students reach 11th grade, the have the opportunity to become a peer leader, where they participate in leadership trainings, commit to remaining drug and alcohol free during high school, and volunteer with younger students. “The young people we serve recognize the life-changing impact our program has had on them throughout the years, before they even graduate from high school, and want to be there to help younger students navigate adolescence on the same six-year journey.” For more information about Trekkers and their programming, visit trekkers.org.


Key lessons learned…

Don’s listening tour has also helped shape the Lerner Foundation’s new strategic grantmaking activities. From the insights gained during the tour, Don identified four key lessons which the Foundation is incorporating into its new Aspirations Incubator Program (AIP). 

1.  There is a deep need to build and maintain youth programming models to engage young people beyond the middle school years. 

2.  There is a need for caring adults to offer consistent outreach and become “Relationship Routers” during the 8th – 9th grade transition to keep students focused on pathways to higher education and post-secondary careers.

3.  When it comes to program delivery models, developmental stages matter.

4.  There is a need for more training in social and emotional development to help implement targeted prevention, intervention and promotion strategies in youth development programming. 

Stay tuned for more news about the Aspirations Incubator Program in early 2017!



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