Unlike traditional afterschool programs in which youth are viewed as service recipients, the youth-adult partnership (Y-AP) model emphasizes that youth serve in meaningful leadership roles in an organization or program. This model has gained increasing popularity in out-of-school-time (OST) programs in the past two decades, and it is the framework we use at the Neutral Zone. Y-AP is defined as “the practice of multiple youth and multiple adults deliberating and acting together, in a collective (democratic) fashion, over a sustained period of time, through shared work intended to promote social justice, strengthen an organization and/or address a community issue.”
Studies show that programs using a Y-AP model have offered youth diverse and meaningful roles such as being youth council members, activity leaders, or program representatives in community events. Research has also found that these experiences support the development of youth autonomy which is a critical developmental need for adolescence. Leadership roles also contribute to youths’ empowerment and civic engagement, development of social-emotional skills, and involvement in positive changes in communities.
Many researchers have reviewed Y-AP practices in community settings and have connected Y-AP roots to developmental theories such as Dewey’s experiential learning and Erikson’s identity development in adolescence. Researchers then put forth a theoretical framework to define Y-AP as a model that consists of four critical elements: (1) authentic decision making, (2) natural mentors, (3) reciprocal activity, and (4) community connectedness. This theoretical framework provides an invaluable starting point for elaborating and concretizing the concept of Y-AP and highlighting essential guidelines.
Although the concept of Y-AP has been well received, implementing it without clear guidelines can be challenging. Understanding and measuring Y-AP can ensure that programs operate with high quality and that youth receive the intended benefits of program participation. To achieve quality and fidelity, various researchers and organizations have developed program assessments. Those currently available in the youth field measures some aspects of Y-AP, such as youth leadership, relationships, staffing, and community linkages; however, no single tool, until now, captured the full complement of Y-AP core elements.
With support from an Edmund A. Stanley, Jr. research grant from the Robert Bowne Foundation, researchers from Michigan State University’s (MSU) Office of University Outreach and Engagement joined with Directors from the Neutral Zone to co-develop a rubric to measure Y-AP. Together we crafted the rubric to lay out the specific activities and interactions one would observe to demonstrate that the critical elements of Y-AP were taking place. We developed an initial observation rubric based on the Y-AP literature and our years of experience. After going through a couple of tests and iterations the researchers then observed 10 Neutral Zone programs that varied in youth demographics, program activities, and focus to test the instruments’ applicability. Because the goal of the project was to establish a meaningful rubric that captures the concepts and practices of Y-AP, the whole project team then held a focus group with Neutral Zone staff and youth to get feedback on the rubric across wording, examples, and concepts of the rubric items. After incorporating this feedback, we finalized the rubric.
We believe the rubric is appropriate for any settings that involve multiple youth and adult(s) working together with extensive dialogue for a common goal. These settings could be school programs, afterschool programs, camps, or other programs in which youth and adults interact.
Though the rubric still needs to go through a validation process, we believe it is useful in both research and practice. Researchers can use the rubric for internal and external assessments of Y-AP practices. Afterschool practitioners can use the rubric as a manual and a self-assessment tool to support implementation of high-quality Y-AP practices.
As more communities and schools struggle for ways to connect and engage youth, especially the most under-served, there is an urgency for spaces that serve youth to find and use the most effective ways to support their youth. As Shep Zeldin, one of the premiere researchers in this field stated “Y-AP can be conceptualized as an over-arching value and as a holistic practice for addressing the isolation of youth from the social capital and the passion for community participation that many adults bring with them. Promoting Y-AP could provide youth with legitimate opportunities to build social networks, gain competencies, and experience a sense of connectedness even during periods of personal vulnerability and developmental risk.”