Guiding youth on pathways to a positive future – SPARK establishes program in two schools

SPARK supports organizations as we all build stronger relationships to support the success of young people in the Greater Itasca Area. An example of how SPARK does this can be seen in programs established in two of our area schools.

A significant step for SPARK came in the spring of 2017 when the position of Itasca County Community Engagement Coordinator was formed in partnership with the University of Minnesota Extension. Courtney Johnson stepped in, ready to make change, and established pilot youth programs at Northern Lights Community School and the Grand Rapids Area Learning Center. Photo: Grand Rapids Area Learning Center youth learn about communication, team building and problem solving through a fun challenge activity.

Pilot program has impact

In 2017, Johnson pilot-tested programming designed to build social-emotional learning and integrate learnings from the Youth Voice Survey; her work was incorporated into the school day at Northern Lights Community School. Based on the success of the Northern Lights Community School pilot, an agreement for a pilot with the Grand Rapids Area Learning Center launched in the winter of 2018. Students participated in discussion and activities on topics such as values, communication and teamwork, and reflected on how they could use their new skill in community. Students also interviewed community members who have overcome challenges.

Photo: Northern Lights Community School youth participate in leadership activities before a leadership style training.

The approach had an impact. Students learned they could make a difference, the importance of accepting others, and that they have control over their choices and their life path. Staff reported the work captured students’ attention, strengthened listening skills, and built trust between staff and students. The program is now a regular part of curriculum at Northern Lights Community School and is also being delivered at the Grand Rapids Area Learning Center.

At Northern Lights Community School, youth reported that they improved their communication skills. Youth said, “I am better at speaking in a group.” “It was helpful in teaching better communications skills.” And, “I was able to express myself. There is more to me than I thought.”

The Northern Lights Community School and the Grand Rapids Area Learning Center program goals included:

  • To equip young people with basic understanding of Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

  • Provide an opportunity to practice these skills in a safe setting

  • Assist youth in creating connection to community

  • Expose youth to positive adults in the community

When students at the Grand Rapids Area Learning Center were asked if they met a caring adult through the program, 100% of students said, “Yes”. Youth described the adults as; “caring adults concerned for the future of the group, engaged in conversation, listened, were welcoming, talked about how we can come to them anytime and their door is always open, wanted us to be successful, they understood our struggles as a teen mom and made us feel like we could get through it.”

Johnson says, “The best part about the program is the relationships that youth build with me, the community adults we bring in, and their peers,” said Johnson. “These relationships are authentic and have endless possibilities for youth.”

Deziree Davis, Intern at the Grand Rapids Area Community Foundation shares her thoughts about working with Johnson, “The stuff we did at the ALC with Courtney was probably the most helpful class I’ve taken when it comes to doing things in the real world – and adulting.”

Photo: Grand Rapids Area Learning Center youth work together to engineer a tower during a team building and problem solving activity.

From pilot to permanent programming

Following the success of the 2017 Northern Lights Community School pilot, programming continued throughout the 2017-2018 school year. Johnson led two, 12-week program offerings which began in the fall. Each program offering consisted of a one-hour session, twice a week. More than 40 students from grades 7-12 participated over the course of both program offerings.

The Grand Rapids Alternative Learning Center began programming January 9, 2018. The program targeted ten, 10th and 11th graders for one hour, once a week for 12 weeks. Curriculum used was modeled from learnings at Northern Lights Community School with the same goals. School staff were excited and energized for programming to begin; additionally, staff appreciate that SPARK is invested in the success of “their youth”!

Building off of past successes, Johnson will begin working directly with students again at Northern Lights Community School and the Grand Rapids Area Learning Center for the 2018-2019 school year in early November. Plans are in motion to add another site to Johnson’s programming for this school year.

Why Relationships?

SPARK’s mission drives us to work together to build a stronger future for the young people of the Greater Itasca Area. Building on the work of so many in the region, a series of community meetings captured the hopes and dreams about the kind of community the Itasca Area aspires to be for its youth, and from that several community leaders designed the SPARK Pathway to Student Success. The SPARK Pathway plots the course of a young person’s journey from prenatal to career, with several guideposts along the way. The Pathway is not just a guide for youth, but for all members of the community with an interest in seeing that youth succeed. Its goals rest on research-based competencies, experiences reported by young people themselves, as well as key transition points where we know students must be on target developmentally to have long-term success.

Photo: Northern Lights Community School youth reflect together through an activity focused on communication.

Sarah Copeland, Director of Grants and Programs at the Community Foundation remarks, “SPARK is comprised of members of so many community groups and organizations; the Pathway is a great tool to help keep things focused. It is so exciting to be part of an initiative that honestly listens to youth, and then uses their voice (that data) to provide positive programming that directly affects their lives. Youth matter. We want young people to be healthy and successful – and work and live here!”

In 2014, more than 2,400 Itasca area youth in grades 7 to 12 added their voices to the work by completing the Itasca Youth Voice Survey. The survey was developed and implemented by the Search Institute, a Minneapolis-based research organization that for more than 50 years has studied assets youth need to succeed. The survey revealed young people’s needs and perspectives. These voices propelled community action in dozens of large and small ways then and continues to do so today.

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 publicly in late November.

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.

To learn more, visit the SPARK website:

The Grand Rapids Area Community Foundation is the fiscal sponsor of SPARK. The Community Foundation supports the success of all students in the Greater Itasca Area. Using data and building relationships with students is a key component to their success. Our youth matter. If you would like to support SPARK, click here.

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