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Much can be said about the lack of access to enrichment opportunities for youth growing up in urban, high-poverty neighborhoods. But what about all those after-school programs that few kids bother to attend, or that never get off the ground to begin with?
Anyone who knows a tween––of any economic bracket––knows how hard it is to keep his or her attention during those vulnerable, pivotal years between ages 10 and 13 when, suddenly, parents aren’t the only ones deciding what to do outside school anymore. Tweens can choose to spend their time in a myriad of ways, whether hanging out, texting, playing video games, shooting hoops or (psst, don’t tell anyone) doing homework. They care about nothing more than fitting in.
Our friends at the Wallace Foundation, seeking to engage low-income young people in the arts as a way of narrowing life opportunity gaps, commissioned a strategic marketing group to find out: What makes a program desirable to kids?
Evidently, they aren’t the only ones interested in the answers. More than 500 people from California to Minnesota to New York tuned in to a webinar Thursday on the resulting study, “Something to Say: Success Principles for Afterschool Arts Programs from Urban Youth and Other Experts.”
On the call were the report’s two authors, Denise Montgomery and Peter Rogovin, who normally work with the for-profit sector at Next Level Strategic Marketing Group. (Prior clients include Pepsi, Johnson & Johnson, and Whirlpool.) Over the past year and a half, their target consumers were 151 fifth- through eighth-graders and 73 tween parents in Cleveland, Newark, Philadelphia, Birmingham and the San Francisco Bay Area. All from economically depressed areas of their cities, the kids had to express a moderate interest in the arts, the idea being that they would be the audience ripe to take advantage of improved program offerings. Feedback from those with no interest wouldn’t be particularly useful, and those with high interest are hooked already. But they did also consult with 64 teens, ages 14 to 18 and highly engaged in the arts in Boston and Providence, to see what got them there.
Lesson No. 1: Don’t call an arts program an arts program. For tweens, the word arts triggers associations with museums (boring) and arts and crafts projects (for little kids, the identity they’re trying to shed). Drama, dance, singing and design all deserve their own creative names. “Adventures in Media: Digital Storytelling” would be a good name for a program, but “Zombies Take New York” would be better.
Lesson 2: The goal should be to create programs luring enough for kids to sell their parents on their participation, not vice versa. But low-income parents––not only their children––need to understand the professional opportunities that can grow out of arts involvement. They tend not to see arts as a potential ticket out of poverty, as sports could theoretically be, and therefore don’t see as much value in arts programs. Famous athlete or struggling artist is the tradeoff in their minds.
Third: Since a tween lives or dies around fitting in, a program must meet peer approval if a kid is going to stand a chance of showing up. As a fifth-grade boy from Oakland, Calif., explained to the marketers, “I might not go if other people keep telling me it’s wack.”
With all that in mind, what actually engages tweens in a program?
Around the country, the answers were remarkably consistent. For one thing, tweens want to learn from people who know what they’re doing: from practicing, professional artists who are paid for their time and well-regarded in their field––preferably famous. They want to do hands-on activities in inspiring spaces, and they want (duh) the chance to make new friends. They like the idea of an audience coming to see them at a culminating event like a concert or recital, especially if it involves a competition they can win. They like rituals that give them a sense of belonging. And they like to be fed.
To understand the supply side of equation, the researchers spoke with 22 leading authorities in extracurricular arts programming and studied eight of the most successful after-school programs in the nation. The adults’ conclusions about what makes a winning model weren’t far off from the children’s observations.
But even if a program were perfectly tailored to a tween’s desires, between a quarter and a third of the youth interviewed said they still wouldn’t go, opting for boredom over potential public embarrassment. Sometimes, kids will sometimes still be kids, no matter how quickly they’re rushing to grow up.