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Listening closely to kids

Date Published: 12/11/2014

Author: Dane Smith


The Timberlake Lodge ballroom in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, was filled to capacity recently with a rare assemblage of adults and teenagers, all engaged in candid conversations about whether the local community was delivering what kids really need to succeed.

This was a truly unusual and ambitious undertaking and a big step forward for a very promising new rural community collaboration aimed at improving outcomes for all the youth in the Itasca County region.

Youth and high school students today are tested, prodded, criticized and constantly measured with high-pressure, high-stakes tests. The trend has prompted some wags to deride the massive 2001 federal education reform initiative, which has driven much of the testing, as the “No Child Left Alone Act.”

This gathering was the shoe on the other foot, like a massive parent-teacher-student conference in which the adults in the Itasca County area were submitting to a performance review from youth.

The 200 people in the room, roughly half adults and half youth, were first shown the results of a comprehensive survey of more than 2,300 youth, or almost all the students in grades 7 through 12 in the Itasca County area. The survey asked scores of questions about how parents, schools and community were performing in providing a cradle-to-career “Pathway to Student Success” plan that has been created recently by the Itasca Area Initiative for Student Success (IAISS), a broad collaboration of community leaders, business groups, and educators. The survey was created and administered in partnership with the Search Institute, one of the nation’s leading organizations with expertise in youth development.

The survey measured Pathway to Student Success progress toward goals such as access to stable relationships with an involved parent or caregiver, access to high-quality out-of-school programs, and meaningful connections to the community. The expectations listed in the Pathway to Student Success framework are that every student will be supported inside and outside of school; feel accepted; demonstrate competency or mastery at current learning level; enroll in and complete a degree, certification or other training program after high school; and develop skills to live, work and thrive in an ever-changing world.

That’s an ambitious set of goals. And this first report card revealed both surprising strengths and obvious shortcomings.

Almost two-thirds of the youth expressed strong or moderate agreement that they had a stable relationship with an involved parent or caregiver. There was fairly strong agreement that students were receiving family and community support and that they were in a “positive school environment.” A surprisingly large percentage, about 80 percent, said they probably or definitely would graduate from college and more than half said they would go on to a graduate or professional school.

But the community’s grades for responding to youth needs and “pathway” goals were not so great elsewhere. More than half of the youth said they did not have broadband internet access at home. Only about a third said they felt they were being provided with adequate technology skills or with “academic confidence.” Marks were not great on the quality and variety of out-of-school time programs or connections to the larger community.

At the table where I served as a facilitator, students were very frank about the damaging effects of bullying, and peer disapproval and discouragement from participating in positive out-of-school clubs and activities. Several said parents and adults were rather clueless about today’s youth culture, and that out-of-school time needed to be more oriented toward arts and music, with perhaps less emphasis and prestige for sports activities.

Notes from other tables include these comments, from both youth and adults.

“It’s not cool to be involved — there needs to be more word-of-mouth about why would you join that club. … Band and choir kids get picked on at school, it’s not cool to be artistic.”

“Perceived quality [of after-school programs] goes down each grade … kids get jobs, drop out, don’t have the same amount of time as they did in middle school. … The older kids get, the less connected they feel to adults and programs.”

In an essay after the event, Kim Geislinger, a local social services provider who was the event’s emcee, described how she saw an adult at one table coax and coach a student into speaking and summarizing that table’s discussion. “Those two people had never met, yet the young person was given the support she needed to have her voice heard,” Geislinger wrote. “Small touches matter. Relationships matter. Listening matters.”

The enormous power of affirmative personal relationships with adults — and the effect they can have in building resilience and perseverance in today’s overstressed and often disadvantaged youth — is a central theme of the Search Institute’s research and advocacy.

In an inspiring presentation to the Minnesota Rural Education Association’s conference, held in Brainerd a few days before the Grand Rapids event, Search Institute President and CEO Kent Pekel cited numerous academic studies that underscore the personal relationship imperative.

These studies are finding, Pekel said, that “warm demanders,” or teachers and other adults who are both loving and who impose high expectations, are the most crucial ingredient to student success.

The Itasca County Youth Voice Community Conversation climaxed with an interactive performance by the Nashwauk Cheer Squad, who came off the stage and engaged the entire audience in dancing along to Taylor Swift’s song “Shake It Off.” Only later, after I looked up the lyrics, did I realize how much the song emphasized the resilience and persistence that is so central to the work of the Search Institute and the IAISS.

The key refrain: “The haters gonna hate, hate, hate … heartbreakers gonna break, break, break … and the fakers gonna fake, fake, fake … I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake it off, shake it off.”


A version of this coulumn originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, December 11, 2014. 

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