The combination of poverty, broken homes, and troubled neighborhoods are frequently cited as reasons for low academic achievement and high dropout rates among minority youth. However, many minority children coming from impoverished neighborhoods and raised by a single parent excel in school and become successful adults. Growing up in a poor community in Chicago, where it is often thought that children are viewed as “doomed to fail,” Reg Clark, of Clark and Associates, is one of these successes.
After obtaining his doctoral degree, Dr. Clark dedicated his professional life to analyzing the factors that help children become academically successful. During his 20 years of research, he has found that the mother’s educational level accounted for only seven percent of the variance between high and low achieving youngsters, the father’s educational level for only three percent, and economic status for another seven percent. The remaining approximately 80 percent of the variance between the two groups was related to the ways the children spent their time. High achieving youngsters, when compared to their low-achieving peers, have greater access to learning materials, use computers more, and are more involved in after-school activities that have a learning component, such as writing, doing homework, or reading. In addition, high achieving youth have at least one adult outside of school who sets high standards and regularly advises the youth to do well. Dr. Clark’s findings are described in his book, Family Life and School Achievement: Why Poor Black Children Succeed or Fail.
Based on his research findings, Dr. Clark developed a model for after-school programs that balances academic and leisure activities with a predominance of “high yield” learning activities. Project LEARN, used by the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, is based on this model. These latter activities provide children with opportunities to develop their abilities and engage them intensely. Adults act as coaches and advocates in Dr. Clark’s model programs, helping the youth to develop a plan for this balanced life style, connecting them with the necessary services, advocating for them when needed, and encouraging them to succeed. The activities must be fun, engaging, and developmentally appropriate. If the children are intentionally involved in the activities, learning will occur, assures Dr. Clark. In his program, the children initially keep track of how they are spending their time. Then, they work with a mentor to set goals and develop a plan that increases the proportion of high yield learning activities. The mentor also engages the youth in discussions that help promote a better life style. Dr. Clark’s proposal is to build communities of adults and children partnerships, so that each child may have at least one influential adult in his or her life (For more information on Dr. Clark’s after-school model, see ).
Project LEARN is an after-school program that follows Reg Clark’s model, explains Michelle Hailey, Director, Education & The Arts, Boys & Girls Clubs of America (B&GCA). The program offers children opportunities to engage in high yield learning activities, such as homework help, leisure reading, writing activities, discussions with knowledgeable adults, volunteer work in the community, or playing games that involve cognitive skills. The children learn how to plan ahead and plot what they are going to do. Incentives are initially used to encourage the children to pursue their plans, but as they progress, incentives become less important. The satisfaction obtained in the activities becomes their main rewards. The program engages parents in fun activities, such as talent shows and trips, so that they can share their children’s time and successes. Collaboration with schools is another component of the program, although according to the Project LEARN coordinators, it is often the most difficult to develop.
Carter Julian Savage, Senior Director, Education Programs, B&GCA, observes that the impact of programs such as Project LEARN can be exponential, since the children who are helped today will be better parents in the future. As Dr. Savage remarks, the children do not come to the club because they want to be educated, they come because it is fun, they are with their friends, and they have positive relationships with adult leaders. Therefore, it is important to promote activities that are both fun and educational. Learning must be infused in all activities so that it becomes part of the fun. For instance, a basketball practice is fun for the youth, but the mentor can reinforce punctuality and reliability, behaviors that will be important throughout the child’s life. By offering activities that engage the youth, the club encourages them to become self-directed learners. To maintain the program quality, staff training is an important component of the project. The training involves a full-day workshop for the entire staff and more training is being planned.
B&GCA sponsored an extensive evaluation of Project LEARN that involved 992 youth, ages 10 to 15, in 15 different sites located in five cities across the United States. All participant children lived in public housing. The youth were divided into three groups: Project LEARN youth, youth in other B&GCAs without the project, and youth in generic after-school programs. Comparisons were made 7 months after the start of the program, and at 18 and 30 months. Researchers found that the more youth participated in the project, the more they read books and magazines, talked with adults about current events, tutored younger members and received tutoring. They also attended more days of school and had a higher GPA than the other two groups. In addition, their grades increased steadily during the period evaluated. For instance, youth in Project LEARN increased their overall GPA by 11 percent, spelling GPA by 22 percent, and mathematics GPA by 13 percent. Compared to youth who did not attend B&GCA, Project LEARN youth’s overall GPA was 15 percent higher (A description of this evaluation can be found in More Things That DO Make a Difference for Youth, a publication of the American Youth Policy Forum).
Project LEARN does not cost any more than other after-school programs, because it does not require more staff. The main difference between this model and a regular after-school program is how time is used. The youth motivation comes from a basic human desire to succeed. The motivation is there, says Dr. Clark, but the youth need a strategy and consistent adult support. Programs such as Project LEARN provide the strategy and caring, knowledgeable adults to enable the youth to realize their full potential as productive, responsible, and caring citizens.
This information is from an American Youth Policy Forum held on March 31, 2000 at the Rayburn House Office Building. The forum was co-sponsored with the Coalition for Community Schools, c/o Institute for Educational Leadership and the DC Children and Youth Investment Corporation and reported by Sonia Jurich.
Clark and Associates
P.O. Box 1346
Claremont, CA 91711
Director, Education & The Arts
1230 W. Peachtree St. NW
Atlanta, GA 30309-3447
Carter Julian Savage
Senior Director, Education Program Services
1230 W. Peachtree St. NW
Atlanta, GA 30309-3447