SPARK in action through Itasca Network’s for Youth

Itasca Networks for Youth committed to continuous improvement of afterschool programs

Across the nation, nearly one-fifth of children in the United States attend public schools in rural communities. Youth-serving organizations that provide out-of-school time programming for these kids face many barriers. The vast geography of the county, the economic struggles, cultural differences and the varying school district sizes all create a unique backdrop for youth living in Itasca County. For all of these reasons, out-of-school time providers in Itasca County play a key role in the development of young people.

The Itasca Area has created a group of out-of-school time program providers called Itasca Networks for Youth (INY) to overcome barriers faced by youth in our community. The network’s mission is “ensuring that all Itasca Area youth have a safe, positive place to access a variety of experiences to develop the whole person”. To achieve their mission, the members are developing partnerships, networking, and training to enhance local programming for young people in the community.

Over the course of nearly a decade, Itasca Networks for Youth has provided a variety of networking and training opportunities for professionals who deliver afterschool and out-of-school programs, as well as strategically identifying methods and developing programs to address the needs of young people in the community. In partnership with SPARK, Itasca Area Schools Collaborative, Blandin Foundation and the University of Minnesota, dedicate funds to support the Itasca Networks for Youth’s mission.

“We are fortunate to have Itasca Networks for Youth and partners in our community focused on the best interest of our young people,” says Courtney Johnson, Itasca County Community Engagement Coordinator. “The commitment and the dedication of our afterschool and out-of-school time providers is creating quality experiences for young people across the county.”

[Photo M3 A: Itasca Community College Upward Bound Director, Toni Wick works through an Itasca Networks for Youth training in January called Making Meaning out of Multiple Data sets (M3).]

Itasca Networks for Youth - committed to forming partnerships

Itasca Networks for Youth was formed in the late 2000’s to develop a collaboration or network for out-of-school time providers to share programming that was offered in different organizations. Organizations felt a network would be beneficial to help reduce program scheduling conflicts, create partnerships, develop networking opportunities, increase awareness of local programs and continue to support youth beyond Invest Early™ .

To support Itasca Networks for Youth’s work, Johnson was hired in the winter of 2017 in partnership with the University of Minnesota Extension, the Blandin Foundation, and SPARK, as the Community Engagement Coordinator. This position is responsible to provide support for Youth Program Quality Assessment (YPQA) observations, discovery meetings and trainings for all Itasca Networks for Youth partners.

Regular meetings with program partners

On the third Wednesday of each month, Itasca Networks for Youth partners gather at the Blandin Foundation to network and collaborate. Current Itasca Networks for Youth members include AEOA, Deer River Boys & Girls Club, Boys & Girls Club of Grand Rapids and Greenway, Boy Scouts, Camp Hiawatha, Campfire Minnesota-Camp Bluewater, Grand Rapids Area Library, GRIP Coalition, Itasca Area Schools Collaborative, Community Education, Itasca County 4-H, Itasca Family YMCA , Itasca Orchestra & Strings, Itasca Community College-Upward Bound, MacRostie Art Center, North East Minnesota Office of job Training (NEMOJT), North Homes Child & Family Services, Community Presbyterian Church, and Youth for Christ.

Duane Giesler, Youth for Christ Director, and long-time partner in Itasca Networks for Youth says, “Those who gather for the monthly meetings, leave their titles at the door and are willing to roll up their sleeves and say, okay, what can we do together and how can we be more effective in our work. What do we need to focus on as a group?”

[PHOTO: Longtime Itasca Networks for Youth partner Duane Geisler, Youth for Christ Director, and Deanna Winge, AEOA Director work together during a YPQA Training.]


The most common response among members regarding Itasca Networks for Youth’s value to Itasca County is: “How the network was able to create opportunities for programs to collaborate and have open discussions, ultimately eliminating or reducing siloed programming.” Members say prior to the formation of Itasca Networks for Youth there was a culture where there were “turf wars” and limited conversations between youth programs in the area. Itasca Networks for Youth has created a space where organizations are open to discussing their programming and interested in developing partnerships.

The second most positive impact of Itasca Networks for Youth is the group's collective focus on the needs and concerns of youth. “Itasca Networks for Youth is really good at having everyone always focused on outcomes for the kids,” says Chad Evans, previously of Deer River Boys & Girls Club. “We are focused on outcomes and the spirit of our work.”

Since its inception, Itasca Networks for Youth has received facilitation support from the Blandin Foundation. Partners say this has allowed for consistent professional facilitation and stability in the Network. “I believe that the high-quality neutral-party facilitation from the Blandin Foundation has been key in the groups continued success,” says Johnson.

Committed to quality improvement

Itasca Networks for Youth has provided training opportunities for its partners. One of the most valued trainings for the Network has been Weikert’s model of Youth Program Quality. This model is based in positive youth development research, and the desire to create a safe, supportive, and productive environment for youth. Additionally, Itasca Networks for Youth entire group has fully embraced the use of the Youth Program Quality Assessment tool (YPQA). This assessment tool is a validated instrument designed to measure the quality of youth programs and identify staff training needs. The process has been used in community organizations, schools, camps, and other places where youth have fun, work, and learn with adults. Through “discovery meetings” Itasca Networks for Youth members meet with Johnson to identify their strengths and areas of growth.

Through the partnership with the University of Minnesota Extension, Youth Quality training has been provided to Itasca Networks for Youth members, and has continued to be a main focus in Itasca Networks for Youth’s agenda. A variety of other trainings have been offered for Itasca Networks for Youth members and their staff. Examples of the trainings included; Build it Believe it, Youth Mental Health First Aid, Quality Matters, M3, and Evaluation Design.

[Photo M3 B: Grand Rapids Area Children's Librarians, Tracey Kampa (L) and Dion Card (R) work through an Itasca Networks for Youth training in January called Making Meaning out of Multiple Data sets (M3)]

As needs for youth change, Itasca Networks for Youth continues to grow and evolve to meet those needs. The network’s organic creation, strong neutral-party facilitation and intentional focus on youth has created a system that inspires strong partnerships, provides quality trainings for youth workers and promotes the value of out-of-school time programming. “Itasca County residents are fortunate to have a community of out-of-school time providers so focused on the best interest of its young people,” Johnson concludes.

To learn more, visit the SPARK website:

SPARK has a fund at the Grand Rapids Area Community Foundation. If you are interested in supporting the work of SPARK financially, you can donate to SPARK. Click here to donate to the SPARK Fund.

SPARK is committed to ensuring every young person in the Itasca 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.

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