87% of Students Completed REACH’s Four-Year Commitment
How can a youth development program get 78 teenagers from low-income families to complete a rigorous four-year curriculum during one of the most complicated transitions of their lives?
FOR MOST, THE BIGGEST LIFE CHANGE YET
Relationships, incentives, and low-friction communication technology contributed to REACH’s extraordinary levels of attendance and engagement over the course of our original “end-of-sophomore-year to end-of-sophomore-year” program.
A PROGRAM THEY COULD OWN
REACH has employed a combination of high-touch programming and occasional incentives (a laptop computer for high school graduation, an international excursion upon completion of the program). We also strive to involve students in all program decision-making.
For our first two cohorts, the REACH journey included an average 2,220 hours of program contact time, beginning with a three-week wilderness adventure, and then guiding students through SAT prep courses, outdoor adventures, life skills workshops, and monthly online mentoring sessions in college, all culminating in a cross cultural exchange in the highlands of Ecuador. Throughout, students took ownership for planning and execution, using staff as resources.
The deep relationships, incentives, and student sense of ownership contributed to very little attrition or absenteeism during the four-year program. 100% of students felt that an adult at REACH cared about them, and this was critical in the second half of the program. Even when students were feeling overwhelmed or distracted, they made time for REACH because of the relationships.
FROM HIGH TOUCH TO HIGH TECH
We expected to rely more on outside vendors and less on our own staff, but soon saw that our personal relationships with students increased their engagement in the curriculum.
Those deep personal relationships were essential once students left for college and we transitioned to virtual workshops and meetings. We had two contact points each month via Zoom conferencing software. One session was with a group of 6-10 students, where we discussed common challenges and solutions, providing a space where students could stop pretending to not be home sick and talk instead about how they were dealing with it. The other session was a one-on-one, to discuss how the student was doing, and how to find individualized resources at his or her school.
Surveys associated the following program characteristics with participant attendance and engagement:
Quality of Staff/Student Relationships
“…the discussions we had [via Zoom] were, I think, discussions that were needed being a freshman in college, ’cause like, I’m gonna go to college and I’m gonna be really independent, but I’ve never been independent in my life before.”
Opportunities for Leadership
“They would choose three main [leaders of the day], and then we would take turns. Even if you didn’t want to be a leader because you didn’t have leadership skills, you would have to do it…Once we got older, we just kind of took charge; now they don’t even have to tell us and things just fall in.”
Developmentally Appropriate Content
“The workshops that we had on health and cooking – those were the most valuable to me because they really helped set the tone of being independent and doing things for ourselves.”
Sense of Community
“I think having a family that motivates you to become a better person and strive for your goals is what REACH is.”
“I was comfortable with failure and I was comfortable messing up because I knew they had me if I fell.”
“I wanted to be able to talk to the people in my cohort as often as I could…That is the thing that really kept me involved.”
Interesting and Goal Oriented Experiential Education
“Everything was just kind of fun. It’s like, okay, we’re gonna meet up and go to a ropes course, we’re gonna meet up and learn how to cook. So many opportunities to learn and grow.”
SHOWING UP FOR LIFE
When we launched REACH, other youth programs expressed skepticism that we could hold onto students after high school, and none of us at REACH were sure we could either. When the time came, we held our breaths to see who would show up to our first online mentoring sessions. As it turned out, attendance DID drop from High School to College, but only from 93% to 85%. This stems in some part from scheduling challenges, with students dispersed around the country. And of course, the first year of college is distracting. Nevertheless, student desire for mentoring increased from 79% in High School to 86% in College. They stuck with us, and they stuck to their dreams and goals.
At a time when all their relationships are distanced, REACH helped them bring a positive, co-created community with them to college. The success of our students shows that consistent access to a trusted guide and supportive peers throughout the transition can make all the difference. 100% of REACH students surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that because of REACH they were more excited to learn to do new activities, more excited about visiting new places, and more interested in learning about new ideas.
A NEW GENERATION OF MENTORS
Unlike other programs launched by the Orfalea Foundation, REACH is less a vehicle for systemic change than an ongoing exploration of the timing of mentorship. After the program concludes, our students bring to their communities everything they have learned about teamwork, leadership, problem-solving, and lifelong learning. We hope that other organizations and philanthropists will build on this success and continue to experiment with long-term mentorship during the transition to adulthood. Based on what we learned from these first two cohorts, as of 2018 REACH will compress its curriculum to 2.5 years, centered on the summer between high school and college. We look forward to reporting on our progress.