RadioActive’s most recent intro workshop participants, posing in front of their shared checklist on the last day of their workshop
Just three years ago, Chris Otey was not in the best of places. He’d dropped out of high school, and only just reenrolled. It was around then that he joined KUOW’s RadioActive, a program that introduces young people to the art of radio and audio storytelling.
“RadioActive helped me develop a new work ethic and a way to be more of an adult,” Chris said. “How to deal with multiple stresses at the same time. How to plan better for the future.” He said it also gave him a safe place to make mistakes and learn from them.
Participants in RadioActive’s 12 to 14 week-long workshops and 6 week summer programs are tasked with producing a radio feature story. These stories have ranged from award-winning portraits of teens who decided to stop hiding their parent’s abuse, to an exploration of what colorism looks like in Seattle. Aside from the technical skills of audio editing and production, participants learn essential life skills such as planning and prioritization.
Chris said the skills he gained at RadioActive were essential for him to be able to finish high school, and continue to be important as he works at KUOW as an employee and goes to college full time.
But that leaves the staff of RadioActive with a question: What were the specific qualities of their program that made it so impactful? More importantly, were there other things they could be doing that would make it better?
With funding from the Raikes Foundation, in 2014, RadioActive joined School’s Out Washington’s Youth Program Quality Initiative (YPQI), a continuous quality improvement process. Through YPQI, programs are assessed based on the Youth Program Quality Assessment (YPQA), a research-proven tool from the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality, and receive training and coaching from SOWA to use that data to identify goals and action plans to improve the quality of their work with youth.
We sat down with RadioActive Program Producer Lila Kitaeff, who has co-led the YPQI effort at RadioActive alongside Program Producer Jenny Asarnow, to learn what two years of YPQI has done for their program and the youth they serve. Here’s five things she told us.
1. Making Youth Partners in Each Other’s Success
We know that some of the attributes of a quality youth program is that they give their participants opportunities to learn leadership skills and to serve as mentors for one another. Lila said RadioActive’s early PQA assessments showed this was an opportunity for their program to improve.
They restructured their program to include “workshop partners.” Instead of students working on their feature story individually, they now get a chance to receive feedback from a partner, and also learn from each other. Lila said this seemingly small alteration has changed the culture of their program.
“Instead of it being ‘Each of you are working on your own thing,’ it’s like, ‘We are all working to create six feature stories, and we all want to help each other succeed,’ ” Lila said.
2. Learning to Prioritize what’s Important
YPQI not only showed RadioActive what to change, it also provided them with guidance on what not to change, the seemingly small aspects of their program that were actually essential, even if it wasn’t immediately obvious.
One thing that RadioActive always tried to do was include a check-in as part of their lesson plans, a chance to go around and hear how the participants were doing.
“We learned from YPQI that not only is that a fun start to the day, but it allows us to build community,” Lila said. “It’s about creating that supportive environment.” A safe and supportive environment is a key ingredient of a high-quality youth development program.
Lila said she and the rest of the RadioActive staff is conscious of this when building curriculum. They know that even with the limited time they have with these youth, they can’t skip the check-in.
Another part of creating a safe and supportive environment is food. If youth aren’t hungry, they can focus on the task at hand. This means when it comes time to set a budget, Lila knows they can’t cut the snacks.
3. Having a Community of Fellow Providers
Programs in YPQI benefit not just from School’s Out Washington’s guidance, but also by being a part of a cohort of other programs going through the same learning process. These cohorts meet together regularly to share successes and challenges, practice new skills, and foster collaboration. For Lila and RadioActive, that community was especially important.
“We’re a part of a larger organization—KUOW—that is not a youth-focused organization,” she said. Having a community of fellow youth providers to learn from was important to her.
Even though RadioActive was the only youth media program in a diverse cohort that also included a STEM program and a youth council, Lila said that didn’t matter.
“It felt like we had more in common than we had different, even though we all were doing really different work,” Lila said. “(We’re all) looking through the same tools, all trying to figure out how to use program quality work for our specific fields.”
4. Having a Coach
RadioActive had a challenge: it was taking them a long time to put together their curricula and daily agenda.
“Every time we moved something around, we ended up having to adjust the whole thing,” Lila said.
They turned to April Miller, their YPQI Coach, for advice.
“She sent us a template that just had a slightly different way of thinking about it, basically in blocks. So it’s like ‘Now we’re going to have 40 minutes of script writing,’ and then you break it down into the 10 or 5 minute things. Instead of what we were doing, which was like ‘5 minutes of this, ten minutes of this,’ and it became so difficult to move stuff around.” Just that small adjustment in how they thought about lesson planning made the process much smoother.
Programs that go through YPQI are assigned a coach, someone with years of experience working with children and youth that serves as a mentor. Having been through the YPQI process themselves, they guide new participants through the process. They get to know the programs they serve well enough that they can show direct-service staff how to apply high-level concepts to the specific group of children and youth they work with, even down to providing advice for working with an individual child.
“My goal isn’t to tell them what to do,” April Miller said of her work with programs, “I’m really there to help them process how to move forward with their goals.”
5. Being Able to Prove Their Impact
“We know that quality youth programs allow youth to succeed in all parts of their life,” Lila said. Having the backing of research-proven tools helps RadioActive when they communicate their impact with the rest of KUOW.
Lila remembered the first meeting when RadioActive got their first set of PQA scores back, a meeting that their boss—himself not a youth development worker—attended. He was able to look through their scores and see how RadioActive did on each item. Their scores were pretty good, Lila said, but more important was that these scores explained to him why RadioActive operated the way it did.
“For him, that was like, ‘Oh now I get why you’re doing all these things!’ ” she said.
If you’re interested in learning what the YPQI can do for your program, you can contact our Program Quality Director, James Lovell at jlovell (at) schoolsoutwashington.org.
Lila thinks you should! “I think that YPQI, if you invest in it as an organization, it has the potential to really transform the work that you’re doing, and the way you think about it.”