SPARK - from 2014 survey results to action

How can we help all Itasca area youth succeed?

Imagine if youth in the Itasca County area felt valued and supported by all – family, school and community to reach their full potential.

In fact, a group of community members has been working to make that vision a reality. The work began with a series of community conversations hosted by the Itasca Area Schools Collaborative (IASC – the seven area school districts and Itasca Community College) and Blandin Foundation that kicked off in 2009. The series concluded with a shared aspiration: “to strive to provide equal opportunities for all children to succeed regardless of the barriers they may face.”

What does all this mean? “What we learned from our conversations with the community is that we all need to – and we all want to –do more to support the success of our young people,” says Jaci David, Blandin Foundation Public Policy Program Officer. “We’ve learned through this effort that youth need strong relationships with adults beyond their family, and SPARK is actively supporting groups that have connections to area youth and focus on relationships committed to youth success.”

Following the conversations, SPARK was established - a council of community members committed to the mission of ‘ensuring success for all Itasca Area youth in strong communities where all learn and thrive’.

“We have a team of community members, many who have been committed long term to this thoughtful work of finding ways to help all area youth succeed,” says David. This group spent two years, listening to and talking with community leaders to define youth-related priorities and in 2012 finalized A Pathway to Student Success, a visual representation of their aspirations for all youth.”

The SPARK council then began building awareness about and support for the Pathway and working in partnership with Search Institute, a Minneapolis-based research organization that for more than 50 years has studied assets youth need to succeed. In 2014, more than 2,400 Itasca area youth in grades 7-12 added their voices to the work by completing the Youth Voice survey developed and implemented by Search.

From analysis of the survey, SPARK learned some key information to guide their work. Most Itasca area youth lack strong relationships with adults beyond their families. The greatest gaps are for older youth and youth whose families have a hard time making ends meet.

Some percentages from the Youth Voice survey

  • On average 44 percent of Itasca area youth report getting lots of encouragement from five or more adults other than their parents. However, breaking down the numbers according to age shows age 10-12 say 51 percent versus age 16-18 record 37 percent.

  • An average of 51 percent of youth say they have adults who are good role models for them. This is highest among 10-12-year-olds at 62 percent and age 16-18 at 44 percent.

  • Only 16 percent of Itasca are youth strongly agree that they matter to people in their town or community.

When youth have strong relationships with non-family adults such as coaches, teachers, counselors, faith community leaders, neighbors, mentors, employers and other adults they are more likely to: Set personal learning goals, be committed to learning and wanting to do well in school, possess everyday workplace skills, and be confident in their academic abilities.

What has been happening since the survey?

In the spring of 2017 SPARK in partnership with the University of Minnesota Extension hired an Itasca County Community Engagement Coordinator. The goal of this position was to utilize the University of Minnesota Extension resources to directly address youth needs in Itasca County. The position was a major action step for SPARK. According to Courtney Johnson, Itasca County Community Engagement Coordinator “I have the best of both worlds. I program directly with youth and support professionals who do youth work. I get to see change and action every day in the community.”

Johnson currently leads programing with youth grades 7-12 at Northern Lights Community School in Warba and the Grand Rapids Area Learning Center. The focus of programming stems from the 2014 Youth Voice Survey data. Together with Johnson, youth build their skills in communication, teamwork and leadership while creating positive relationships with community adults.

Johnson also provides support to Itasca Networks for Youth (INY). This network of afterschool and out-of-school time providers gather monthly to share resources, receive professional development and collaborate to offer high quality youth programming across Itasca County. Johnson aids the group in ensuring high quality programs by conducting Youth Program Quality Assessments (YPQA) for each partner. This process supports each provider along with the collective group. Data collected network wide helps guide future trainings.

Rebecca Rasmussen, 4-H Program Coordinator- Itasca County, says, “As a result from our participation in INY, we revised our Deer River Afterschool program with the goal of building stronger youth/adult connections. We did this by altering the time frame spent with each group, changing two groups that each met for one hour three times per month into one group that meets for two hours, three times per month for seven weeks. This allows us to build stronger youth/adult connections and provide more in-depth learning opportunities.”

Fresh survey results this fall

Communities will soon learn how a focus on providing positive, sustained connections with youth is paying off. Itasca area youth are taking the Youth Voice Survey again this fall. Results will be shared publically in late November.

SPARK is committed to ensuring every young person in the Itasca County Area has what they need to be successful. Positive, well-rounded, and trustworthy relationships begin in the home with parenting adults and siblings. In addition, young people need strong relationships with friends, teachers, employers, youth workers, neighbors, religious leaders, and others. A vast body of research highlights the importance of these relationships in young people’s lives, guiding them on their pathways to a positive future.

To learn more, visit the SPARK website:

To donate to SPARK, click here.

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