After noticing a drop in retention after youth reached middle school, Executive Director Marjorie Kuipers and Program Director Steffanie Rosalez decided to develop a teen program over time by finding creative ways to keep our fourth and fifth graders invested and engaged through middle school and into high school. Steffanie began asking our elementary students to come up with ideas for future classes. Their unique suggestions included roller coaster design, breakdancing, and rock band classes. She took their advice to heart, and the results were dramatic. When students could see that their opinions mattered, they became emotionally invested in the classes and their relationships with Steffanie and our other program staff flourished.
Four years later, as a direct result, an exciting new program called Teen Leaders in the Arts was unveiled. This program blends artistic expression with leadership and job training. It incorporates elements of the Youth Driven Spaces (YDS) program model that was developed by the Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality and applied by The Neutral Zone, a pioneer in innovative youth programming located in Ann Arbor. This out-of-school program model implements structures and strategies that use the operation of the organization itself as a pathway to 21st Century skill building and meaningful civic engagement.
Under the supervision of an adult adviser, nine Teen Leaders determined their own program goals and worked together to meet those goals. They created presentation materials and gained valuable public speaking experience. They even evaluated the success of their program and made recommendations for improvement.
Throughout the summer the teens gained valuable leadership experience. By working with children in our Summer Arts & Learning program, the teens began to identify their own leadership styles. At the end of the summer they filled out leadership self-assessments and had one-on-one interviews with their leadership coach who guided them in a reflection on how to continue to develop their skills.
One of the final decisions the group made was to carry on the Teen Leaders in the Arts program, ensuring that the teens remain an involved group both at the Cook Arts Center and in the greater Grand Rapids community.