Creating Opportunities for Opportunity Youth


Carinne Deeds, Program Associate

Last week in Milwaukee, I had the opportunity to hear Mayor Tom Barrett discuss the importance of an afterschool system as part of a comprehensive citywide improvement strategy. He delivered striking statistics on inequality and made the thoughtful connection between youth crime and youth unemployment. What made the biggest impression on me, however, wasn’t the statistics or the strategy, but the story of the time he missed his first day of high school because he was in juvenile court for a minor offense. Why did Mayor Barrett, who would eventually grow to be successful in life and career, end up in the back of a police car as an adolescent? In the words of the Mayor himself: “Because [he] had nothing to do when school was out.”

This story appears to be a tale of “the wrong place at the wrong time.” The bad news is, Mayor Barrett isn’t the only young person with nothing engaging to do after school. In fact, violent juvenile offenses occur most frequently in the hours immediately following the school day. The good news is – there may be something youth providers can do about it.

Research indicates the immense value of afterschool programs for adolescent and teenage youth and how participation can help older youth get and stay on track for success by connecting to positive role models, expanding upon traditional methods of learning, engaging with the community, and, most importantly, giving them something meaningful to do after school. A Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) study of over 200 afterschool programs serving older youth revealed that successful programs are community-based, provide youth with leadership opportunities, and focus on developmentally appropriate activities that help them reach concrete goals, such as taking the SAT or finding employment. Interestingly, these attributes of effective afterschool programs closely mirror strategies that cities and programs are using to engage Opportunity Youth.

Who are Opportunity Youth?

There are currently 6.7 million Opportunity Youth, defined as young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither enrolled in school nor participating in the labor market. Some of these youth have dropped out of school, are single parents, live apart from their own parents, or lack health insurance, transportation, or other basic necessities.

Common Ground

Serving Opportunity Youth requires coordinated strategies that engage a variety of systems and supports. Some of these strategies are quite similar to the strategies used to engage youth who are already connected to school or the workforce. Programs for Opportunity Youth and those for youth in school often have common goals, such as promoting well-being, creating a positive learning or working environment, connecting youth to mentors, or ensuring that youth get and stay engaged in education, work, and/or civic life.

An important area of intersection between programs serving opportunity youth and those in afterschool programs is the connection to employment, especially in the summer. Many afterschool programs engage older youth in work experiences or apprenticeships during the summer months, just as programs that serve Opportunity Youth seek to connect youth to summer and year-round employment and professional development. This seems like an area with immense potential for collaboration. In fact, the majority of high-retention programs in the HFRP study incorporate youth employment activities at some level. The table below illustrates the various activity types and the rates at which they are utilized by both high-retention and low-retention afterschool programs for older youth, many of which overlap with the priorities of programming for Opportunity Youth.

10.26 blog image formatted

Image: Harvard Family Research Project study

All of these programs can provide a continuum of support from dropout prevention to recovery, aimed at serving all young people, regardless of age or connection to formal education. A Department of Education study of Opportunity Youth re-engagement strategies concluded that “re-entry into the education and workforce systems calls for a level of personalization and support difficult to provide within a typical comprehensive high school structure.” Any program that takes place outside of the traditional education space, such as afterschool programs for older youth, employment centers, or otherwise, can provide students with the positive relationships and sense of connectedness that are so important in the process of preventing disengagement or promoting re-engagement.

Breaking down the silos between the Opportunity Youth, youth employment, and afterschool sectors can be a way to create the type of community collaboration that reduces barriers and strengthens pathways to education and employment to improve the quality of life of all young people.

Carinne Deeds is a Program Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.