The Connected Youth Initiative: How Nebraska Is Working To Improve The Lives of Youth

Trevor A. Fronius

Trevor A. Fronius is a Senior Research Associate with the WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center with a background in criminology and community-based prevention initiatives. Mr. Fronius’ current responsibilities include managing and conducting high-quality research and evaluation for several large-scale rigorous studies in the justice, public health and education sectors.

Young people, even those in the best of circumstances, face considerable challenges transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. These obstacles are compounded exponentially for young people who have been touched by the juvenile justice and foster care systems. The ability to address the issues that these youth face is based on the assumption that the services are available and accessible to the young people who need them. This assumption, however, is not a reality for youth living in rural areas, who do not have access to the same supports and services as their peers living in urban communities.

Enter the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation and its Connected Youth Initiative (CYI). Nebraska has diverse geographic and cultural contexts that impact youth and young adults differently. It is a large and diverse state spanning 76,872 square miles with just under 2 million residents – 43 percent of whom are living in rural communities. The expansiveness compounds challenges for scaling up programs and sustaining change. For example, more than half (55%) of youth in the state live in the rural frontier with sparse population bases and few services available or within a reasonable distance. These challenges are exacerbated for the CYI, a model intended to address the challenges in these rural communities among a population already disconnected from traditional social networks.

In 2015, the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation was funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service, through its Social Innovation Fund, to create the CYI. The CYI serves as an intermediary to six subgrantees across rural areas of the state to address issues concerning young people who are disconnected from traditional forms of support, such as parents, school, and work. The goal of CYI is to realize positive outcomes for participating youth in domains of education, employment, permanence, housing, health, transportation and economic stability. The Nebraska Children and Families Foundation and each of the subgrantees, referred to as collaboratives, are required to match federal funds dollar-for-dollar, in part to ensure that sustainability planning is integral to implementation from the onset. The Foundation selected WestEd and the University of Nebraska’s Center for Justice Research to evaluate this effort and document and assess changes and outcomes over time.

CYI targets youth ages 14-24 who are currently or have been in the Nebraska foster care system, have had contact with child protective services, are transitioning from the juvenile justice system, or are homeless or near homeless. Many of these young people are also out of school and work. The CYI uses a collective impact framework, which creates a structure for how multiple entities collaborate with each other around a complex issue.

To implement this framework, each community collaborative deploys individualized programming for participants as well as universal activities, such as building youth leadership and teaching financial literacy. In the model, a Community Coordinator works closely with a Central Navigator who is charged with facilitating connections for young people across collaborative and community partners. Youth voluntarily participate in services and programs according to their individual needs. The specific services and partnerships vary across collaboratives and are determined based on the assets of the communities and particular needs of young people living there. This determination is made with assistance from the Community Coordinator and Central Navigator with support from the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation to ensure that services are aligned with measures for the external evaluation.

The evaluation of the CYI examines its impact on measures of wellbeing among young people who participate in it and also in system changes to the collaboratives related to the collective impact framework and their capacity to implement this complex initiative. The evaluation team is relying on data collected from young people using a survey administered locally twice each year. WestEd is also working with the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation and communities to develop a youth wellbeing index based on the survey questions to assess outcomes that are locally-developed and aligned to the CYI’s theory of change. Ultimately, the evaluation team plans to examine the changes in self-reported wellbeing for CYI participants compared to changes among similar young people who do not take up CYI services using a quasi-experimental matched pairs design.

The evaluation enters its final year in Summer 2018 and will focus on the outcomes experienced by young people in the CYI. The evaluation will also continue to collect data, assess, and learn from the collaboratives about the implementation of CYI. This work helps document the strengths and gaps across the communities and can be used by the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation to provide support in an effort to continuously improve and refine the CYI in order to support the young people who need it the most.

Author’s Note: I’d like to thank Claire Buddenberg and Sara Riffel of Nebraska Children for their contributions to this post. Portions of this blog article are drawn from a recent R&D Alert article published by WestEd and available here.


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