Program Profile: Youth and Opportunity United

Y.O.U. partners with families, schools, and the community to provide academic, social, and emotional support to close the opportunity gap and prepare all youth for postsecondary and life success. Serving some 1,600 youth at 11 schools in four different school districts in Evanston and Skokie, Illinois, the program focuses on the whole-child approach to youth development and ensures that school stakeholders and caregivers are an active part of the 21st CCLC’s programming. The program aims to support students’ long-term success socially, emotionally, and academically. In the area of literacy enrichment, Y.O.U. aims to offer literacy activities that help students build a reading life and see how literacy is a part of their everyday lives and interests. 

This summer, Y.O.U. ran a seven-week curriculum that connected books to movies. Youth in groups of 10 to 15 students voted on a chapter book to read aloud as a group twice a week and then watched the movie that was based on the book. Through group discussions and writing activities, students compared and contrasted the two storytelling platforms, analyzed the characters in the books and movies, and determined alternative outcomes and endings for the books and movies. 

The Y.O.U. team selected the curriculum after seeking to make changes in summer literacy programming and find something that would build literacy skills but also be fun and engaging for youth who often weren’t excited about reading—especially in the summer. The new curriculum and other changes helped Y.O.U. engage over 200 elementary youth in 14 hours of intentional literacy programming between June and early August. “This time around we know they were actually engaged!” says Director of Elementary Programs Megan Orleans. “Youth often were eager to keep reading the stories aloud during program times outside of scheduled literacy time and completed very thoughtful writing assignments. It was awesome to see.”

At the early elementary level, Y.O.U.’s literacy goals were informed by research indicating that a student’s proficiency in reading at the end of third grade is a key indicator of his or her likelihood to graduate. This focus led to a partnership with Sit, Stay, Read, an organization that seeks to advance students' literacy skills through its literacy curriculum and “volunteer” dogs. “We have tried our best to find partners that focus on literacy skill building and have worked to infuse literacy skill building into our programs for the last several years,” says Orleans. “Sit, Stay, Read was a clear partner in the literacy area and they were looking to branch out into the afterschool space.” Through a series of poetry and short story workshops, rising and current third graders have had the opportunity to showcase self-expression and creativity while also building literacy skills. At the end of each 1-hour session, students were then able to sit down with a volunteer dog to practice their reading skills. “The youth could not be happier to work with the volunteer dogs,” says Orleans. “Sit, Stay, Read is a time of 100% youth engagement within our programs and we are so happy to have them as a partner.”   

The Y.O.U. team sees youth choice as the foundational element of the 21st CCLC’s afterschool and summer literacy programs. “We want to ensure youth have a say in the books they are reading, activities they are doing, and articles they are discussing,” says Orleans. She notes that by giving students autonomy in literacy-based activities, they are more likely to engage in the reading and writing material in meaningful and long-lasting ways. “Our most successful activities have been born out of combining feedback from youth with youth interests—movies, TV shows, and internet games, for example—in order to meet our desired literacy outcomes,” she says. 

Through professional development and ongoing support, Y.O.U. helps equip all staff with the skills and tools to support student literacy. Every fall, afterschool programming begins with training for new team members, which includes an overview of the variety of activities and resources available to enhance literacy enrichment. During the training, Y.O.U. staff lead practice activities, assist new staff in navigating electronic resources, review books available in school libraries, and ask returning staff and managers to share success stories and examples of how they navigate challenges in literacy. During the school year, the elementary team meets monthly to discuss successes and challenges, support each other, and build a community of practice. Prior to summer programming, the 21st CCLC offers a comprehensive, hands-on training on the movie literacy curriculum for all returning and seasonal staff. 

Some other ways Y.O.U. has supported student literacy include the following:

  • Using NewsELA, a database of news stories tailored for classroom use, to find age-appropriate news articles to read out loud, have group discussions, and write follow-up letters to the editor or stakeholders to help youth tie current events to their own lives and community
  • Hosting book clubs for youth where small groups of youth vote on books to read aloud and discuss, followed up by an activity where youth pretend they are the authors and write a short story or design a comic strip of how they would’ve changed the story
  • Playing reading bingo and encouraging youth to complete different challenges on their bingo card throughout the week (e.g., read an entire chapter, write an opinion article on a current event, design a storyboard for an episode of your favorite TV show) to earn prizes
  • Partnering with the local library to come to the afterschool and summer sites once a month for youth to check out books of their choice at their personal reading level
  • Utilizing iPad apps such as Epic! and Squiggle Park, a unique reading app that ties literacy skill building into a game-like format, in order to draw clear parallels between technology and literacy skill building

Through a range of activities and resources, and involvement of a diverse group of staff and stakeholders, Y.O.U. aims to show students how literacy is an innate part of their everyday lives. “Literacy is truly everywhere,” says Orleans. "Sometimes it just takes a moment for us all to pause, step back, and realize literacy skill building does not always need its own separate time during afterschool programs, but that our programs are often already steeped in literacy-centric activities that we as facilitators can work to make more intentional.”