Q&A: Climbing the Youth Program Quality Pyramid

Pyramid of words: Safe Environment, Supportive Environment, Peer Interaction.

Ravi Ramaswamy is a former youth worker who has moved on to help other youth workers improve their programs. As training coordinator at the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality in Ypsilanti, MI, he helps youth-serving organizations implement the evidence-based Youth Program Quality Intervention.

The intervention starts with an assessment that staff themselves conduct to determine how well components of a program -- like a life skills class or a sexual health training, for example -- are promoting safety, support, peer interaction and youth engagement. Then they decide as a group where they want to work on program improvements.

Ramaswamy talked to us about how the Youth Program Quality Intervention gives staff the tools to improve young people’s experiences of those things.

NCFY: Can you name some changes that programs typically go through when they use the Youth Program Quality Intervention?

RAMASWAMY: The changes are always based on the results of the assessment. Based on the data they get back they decide what their goals are going to be for change. As this process really grabs hold and takes root, there's a unifying language around program quality, and people actually start to use the same words to mean the same things. That's actually a huge development for most programs because if you all mean the same thing when you talk about conflict, you can have more productive conversations about things.

We promote with the adults the same positive interaction and engagement values we are looking to see at the point of service between young people and adults. For staff, it can feel really empowering and really legitimizing, too. Like, the work that you're doing is professional work, and here's a set of standards that you can work to meet, and you can get better. It can be a real revelation for staff, and I think that applies as much to those who work in shelters and [teen pregnancy] prevention programs as it does to people who work in after-school recreation clinics.

NCFY: What about the programs serving youth who have experienced trauma? Is work different with these young people?

RAMASWAMY: When I was working for the [youth shelter and drop-in center], we found that our scores were very high in the safety part of the pyramid. Which was great because that was part of our mission, to provide a safe place for young people to come. But our scores kind of tapered off as we moved up the pyramid. Which is fairly typical of any program even if they're not serving runaway and homeless youth.

What I think is really great about the tool is it establishes a set of standards and a way to measure against those standards. But it's not a high-stakes tool. It's not something where someone is telling you, “You have to get a certain score on it to get funding.” It gave us an opportunity as staff to say, "Hey, great, we're doing what our mission says we do,” and, “Do we also want to push in our programs for more, so that we acknowledge that these other scores are lower and we're not necessarily providing all the opportunities for interaction and engagement that maybe we could be?"

In a way that gave us, as frontline staff, total ownership over our own professional development process. And a way to hold each other accountable that felt like we were coming from a place of solidarity, that it wasn't something that was being imposed on us or dictated to us. And this is something that we see in programs again and again.

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