Youth Today: All Planning, No Programming
By Karen Pittman, March/April 1996
All planning, no programming. This is Zvi Levi's formula for success for the Women's International Zionist Organization-Hadassim Children and Youth Village, tucked into an affluent Israeli community. The village is home to 500–600 youth, ages 8–19, referred through a network of public and private social service agencies around the world. Living in the village are youth who have been abandoned, abused or separated from their families. They are young people who, in this country, we would label “multi-problem,” or, at best, “hard to reach.” Yet there were no guards, no gates. No bells, no posted rules. No locks on lockers. No special classes, counseling sessions or therapeutic activities scheduled in 50-minute segments. In short, no programming.
The no list continues. Many young residents arrive at the village abruptly, in crisis, and often from other countries such as Russia or Ethiopia. Orientation sessions? Language immersion classes? Cultural sensitivity training? No. Many children are behind in their schooling or have emotional or behavioral problems. Alternative schools or special classes? No. Students from the village make up for a third of the student body at the public secondary school that borders the village; no special classes are offered. The diversity and backgrounds of students makes for high demands on staff. Special training or professional requirements? No. Staff must have at least a high school diploma — although a college degree is preferred — and a firm belief in youth.
Director Levi's philosophy is simple yet powerful. Learning and healing best occur in a natural environment. The fastest, most effective way to help troubled youth, therefore, is to allow them to live in a well-planned but unprogrammed environment. An environment full of opportunities (a well-stocked art studio, a voc-tech lab, an auditorium with sophisticated lighting and sound equipment), sprinkled with caring staff (35 direct service staff — most living on campus — for 600 youth), but uncluttered with rules, requirements and protocols. An environment where young people are allowed the time and space to experiment, fail, decide priorities, become self-directed.
Creating environment is not a new idea in U.S. youth work. Rarely is it created as an alternative rather than a complement to programming. And too often environment ends at the program door with little impact on the young person's surrounding world.
Although international cost comparisons need to be made with caution, we should not shrug off the Hadassin's low $8,000 per year cost (including schooling) as salary and cost-of-living differences. Director Levi's costs are low because he deliberately chose to invest in environment, not programs and nurtures, not professionals. The environment is sparse in amenities but rich socially.
Professionals — psychologists, counselors and other specialists — are on retainer to work with staff and youth. The investment is in the residential staff — most married, in their mid-twenties — who are trained as naturally, but as intensely, as the young people are healed.
Nor should we shrug off Levi's success rate. About 90 percent of these young people make it through school, into the Israeli army and on to be productive, contributing citizens. This, by U.S. standards, would be considered spectacular.
Increasing expenses, declining resources and lackluster outcomes make it impossible to get every U.S. young person who needs it into a program, especially when greater needs are automatically equated with more intensive programming and services. It may be, however, that there are economies of scale at work that could allow us to create, at modest per child costs, secure environments for youth without families, and youth with families but without sufficient supports. The interest is there. There are teachers in Chicago who are so fed up with the lack of support at home for students that they are arguing to turn their school into residential centers. There are organizations like El Puente in New York that heal and teach by engaging young people in changing the environments they live in. The shift from ongoing programming to up-front planning requires a leap of faith, but perhaps it's time to jump.
Pittman, K. (1996, March/April). "All Planning, No Programming." Washington, DC: The Forum for Youth Investment. A version of this article appears in Youth Today.
Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment.
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