In this study, we investigated the long term outcomes that ConnectiKids’ participants have experienced since their participation in the ConnectiKids program. We engaged in a mixed methods approach, surveying individuals who participated in ConnectiKids between 2002 and 2009 to gain an understanding of their current circumstances. A subsection of those survey respondents were interviewed about their experiences with ConnectiKids. Additional data was collected from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) on the college and university enrollment and completion rates of the sampled 161 past participants. We found that, by and large, past ConnectiKids participants are likely to attend some form of post-secondary education and if they do, they are likely to complete their chosen program. We also found that the presence of experienced and dedicated mentors was invaluable in providing participants with a feeling of security and self worth that would follow them into adulthood.
Key words: positive youth development (PYD), Hartford, ConnectiKids, youth, social support, mentor
As students of Trinity College in the Liberal Arts Action Lab at the Center for Hartford Engagement and Research we had the opportunity to work with ConnectiKids to determine the long-term impacts of their program. ConnectiKids is a Positive Youth Development (PYD) program that provides after school tutoring, mentoring, and enrichment programs to Hartford youth from kindergarten to eighth grade. We conducted this study with the ultimate aim of supporting the continuation of the ConnectiKids program by increasing their chances of receiving future funding. To achieve this, we sought to provide them with tangible evidence of their past success based on the testimonies and college attendance rates of past participants.
Positive Youth Development
PYD can be used to refer to a philosophy or approach to youth programming, a developmental process, and individual examples of youth development programs. The theory in all of its forms contends that all youth need the same things to develop into thriving adults: positive interpersonal relationships with peers and adults, a safe and stable environment, and personal agency (Bernard et al., 1990; Dubois et al., 2011; Lerner et al., 2021). These components present opportunities to leverage the assets available to youth in their homes, communities, and schools to increase the characteristics or conditions that are associated with a decrease in risk. Such characteristics are known in the existing literature as protective factors, and increasing them is both a key process and objective of PYD programming.
The foundational concepts of PYD are that youth are resilient and have good brain plasticity. Rick Little, founder of the International Youth Foundation, hypothesized that as a result of this resilience and plasticity, if youth are aligned with the proper resources in context, then they can thrive (Lerner et al., 2021). Prior to this PYD conception, youth programs too frequently operated under a pathology paradigm in which youth were, and in some settings still are, considered problems to be fixed rather than potential assets within their communities (Bernard, 1990). It is this asset-based perception that distinguishes PYD philosophies and programs, while still accounting for the contexts experienced by each area and each individual youth. The specificity principle emphasizes the importance of acknowledging racial and cultural contexts as well as socioeconomic and individual experiences (Lerner et al., 2021). It is thought that diversity-sensitive programming that neither de-emphasizes the importance of an individual’s holistic circumstances nor reinforces negative stereotypes, is ideal for positive developmental outcomes (Spencer, 2006).
Another key aspect of the PYD approach, specifically when it comes to programming for the sake of promoting specific outcomes, is the prioritization and promotion of prosocial behavior (Lerner et al., 2021). Positive growth in social skills has been identified as an underlying and informing benefit in the link between contextualized community resources and positive functioning outcomes for youth (Oshri et al., 2017). Several studies suggest that social-emotional-based learning programs can prevent risky behaviors and improve social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic performance (Durlak et al., 2011). Programs that use social and interpersonal skills and outcomes as developmental milestones are thus more likely to cultivate positive social behavior and increase the effectiveness of youths’ interactions with others, hopefully leading to their future social success (Oshri et al., 2017). This commitment can be seen in the ConnectiKids’ leading indicators of growth: conflict resolution capabilities, improved parent-child communication, and developmentally appropriate social and emotional skills. Their primary method of cultivating these outcomes is mentorship.
Mentorship is a key strategy in PYD program design. Mentors cultivate a meaningful personal connection with youth, which benefits the participating youth in the emotional, high-risk behavior, social competence, academic, and career domains (DuBois et al., 2011). This is particularly true when the mentors have clear training and expectations for appropriate methods of connection as well as support from the youth’s parents, frequent youth-mentor events, and access to community spaces. Another key strategy utilized in PYD programs, including ConnectiKids, is the inclusion of structured activities that enable youth to engage in their interests and develop skills as well as a sense of purpose (Ramney & Rose-Kasnor, 2012). Specifically, out-of-school-time (OST) activities are key program contexts for youth development because they are thought to provide youth with the opportunity to act as producers of their own positive development (Lerner et al., 2011).
Many PYD program designs incorporate both mentorship and structured activities in an effort to sustain a social base. Of the most common designs, the Five C’s model has the strongest empirical support. The Five C’s model aims to cultivate growth in competence, confidence, connection, character, and caring (Ramney & Rose-Krasnor, 2012). Lerner, the creator of this model, also postulated the existence or importance of a sixth C, contribution, in which youth who have found success give back to their communities (Conway et al., 2015). While the Five C’s model has proven successful in promoting positive outcomes, it is not the only model with potential. Lerner argues that there are three features, aptly named the ‘Big Three’, that, when used in tandem, will produce a general increase in positive social outcomes and community engagement (Lerner et al., 2021). These features include (1) positive and sustained relations between youth and adults, (2) activities designed to build life skills, and (3) opportunities for youth to use their newfound life skills as participants in and leaders of the family, school, and community activities (Lerner et al., 2021).
Ultimately, PYD as an approach to program design does not necessitate any one model or focus. It only seeks to build youth up by engaging them in healthy interpersonal relationships with their peers and role models. The sole purpose of PYD is to provide youth with community and context-based opportunities to invest in themselves. As a result, the hope is that youth are able to strengthen the protective factors that are within their control and avoid the harm of the risk factors that are not. ConnectiKids, in subscribing to PYD as a philosophy and program design approach, subsequently empowers Hartford youth to reach their potential by engaging and growing social protective factors.
Asylum Hill, Hartford, CT
ConnectiKids is in the Asylum Hill neighborhood of Hartford, Connecticut. According to the Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association website, it’s a unique mix of historical and multi-unit housing stock, corporate headquarters, major health institutions, small companies, museums, churches, and schools, and the Asylum Hill area is appealing and welcoming. Asylum Hill is well positioned for neighborhood expansion and development that will maintain pace with Hartford’s strategic growth objectives thanks to these assets (“Asylum Hill”, n.d.).
Hartford is a mid-sized city, and a diverse hub of art and culture. Its residents speak more than 60 different languages and contribute deep cultural connections to various music and foods to the city’s landscape (CSDE, 2020). Hartford is home to attractions like the Wadsworth Atheneum, America’s oldest continuously operating public art museum, Bushnell Theater, CT Science Center, Mark Twain House, Pratt Street Historic District, and many art galleries and outdoor art displays. It is also known as the insurance capital of the world (“About Us”, n.d. ). Like many American cities, the majority of Hartford residents are marginalized, with just over 28% of residents living on poverty wages, compared to Connecticut’s just under 10%, and the US at 11.4% (US Census, 2021). According to the World Population Review, this trend manifests in low homeownership rates, steady at 24%, and a median household income of $36,278 (2022). The city’s population is 37.7% Black and 44.3% Hispanic or Latinx, contrasted with Connecticut’s majority (79.7%) White population.
The correlation between whiteness and greater access to economic stability is a result of generations of segregation, racism, and regressive taxation. While the impacts of the adversity caused by marginalization cannot be disregarded, the PYD approach recognizes that prosocial developmental outcomes can coexist with youth struggles (Lerner et al., 2021). Youth, as a whole, have great potential and if they are provided with supportive, culturally cognizant, resources, they can flourish.