Thanks in part to Hilltop Scholars, Lily has progressed from reading at a second-grade level in fourth grade to reading at a 12th-grade level in eighth grade today. The program also sparked her leadership skills and increased her comfort with her peers.
Like most youth organizations around Washington state, Peace Community Center is eager to improve the quality of its programs so they can better serve young people.
But the day-to-day work needed to run a program like Hilltop Scholars is all-consuming, says Peace Community Center Executive Director Bill Hanawalt.
“Our leaders are incredibly busy supporting students to live into their full potential, and so it can be difficult to set aside time for improving program effectiveness,” says Hanawalt.
That’s where the Youth Program Quality initiative (YPQI) comes in.
YPQI is a statewide effort funded by the Raikes Foundation to help youth programs increase the quality of their programs by conducting assessments and driving continuous improvement in how staff can best support youth, from creating welcoming environments to skill building and giving young people opportunities to show what they've learned. Since 2009, more than 80 organizations providing hundreds of youth programs have participated in the YPQI.
Research has shown that high quality out of school time programs can help students become more connected with school, improve their attendance, and build positive relationships with adults – all factors that have been shown to improve student outcomes.
The Peace Community Center has been involved in the YPQI through the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, which serves as the hub for the YPQI effort in Pierce County. Hanawalt says the quality assessments used in the YPQI have been particularly helpful for his organization.
“While our assessments showed that many parts of our programs were very strong, they also showed we weren’t giving our students enough opportunity to show leadership and let their voices be heard,” Hanawalt says. “Our staff relishes the information that helps them better engage young people.”
Based on their assessments, the Center made changes, including installing a student council to help shape programs. One of the results was a book group founded by Lily Caldera.
“It was more than just a book club – more like a small family,” Lily says.
Lily’s group read post-apocalyptic young adult novels from “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” series, seizing on the gritty young female protagonists who rise from poverty and oppression to overcome dire challenges – challenges that resonated in the club members’ lives.
“A lot of kids have responsibilities that they shouldn’t have,’’ says Lilly, who began staying home alone at 10 years old, has taken the bus by herself for as long as she can remember, and now babysits younger children in her family.
YPQI recognizes that passionate staff and positive interactions with youth are keys to any successful program. Hilltop Scholars relies mostly on AmeriCorps members, who work in classrooms at Jason Lee Middle School to promote curriculum comprehension and provide after-school tutoring support. Hilltop Scholars staff also host weekly meetings to engage students in discussions about learning development, college expectations, and establishing positive mindsets.
On a recent afternoon, Carole Prince, a graduate of the University of Puget Sound, works with Isis Sapp at a library computer, helping the outgoing 12-year-old focus on her work. Carole has a passionate interest in education and experience working with kids as a summer camp counselor, but little formal training in education. YPQI provides staff like Carole the training and support needed to turn their passion into high-quality, engaging experiences for the youth they support.
“It’s about building relationships with kids,” Prince says.
Nearby, Ashlee Day, a graduate of Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga., works with 12-year-old Sierra Christianson on a math assignment. Ashlee moved across the country to work at Hilltop Scholars because she believes education is a vital foundation for young people, and because she wanted to give back to kids with backgrounds similar to her own.
“I had a single mom growing up; I tell them you don’t count yourself out,” Day says.
Like Carole, Ashlee is getting valuable feedback from the YPQI assessments, as well as expert training and support to help her know how to more effectively interact with the young people taking part in Hilltop Scholars.
The ultimate beneficiaries of the Hilltop Scholars program’s participation in the YPQI process are young people like Lily Caldera. Lily is headed to Stadium High School in the fall and says she is well on her way to attending Pacific Lutheran University, a dream she has nurtured since a childhood field trip. Lily would be the first in her family to go to college, and she hopes to become a grief counselor. Lily credits Hilltop Scholars and its staff for helping making her dreams possible.
“I’ve been through some stuff, seen it from a different perspective,” she says. “I think I can help people.”
$5,000 (via grant to Greater Tacoma Community Foundation)
June 2014 - May 2015