Meg Blinkiewicz knew the Kalamazoo Youth Development Network (KYD Network) was dipping its toes into the shallow end of its potential. It was time to take a deep dive.
In 2014, she had the opportunity to do just that as head of the Kalamazoo Youth Development Network, an organization born in 2000 as a partnership between community partners and funders in the youth development sector wanting to come together to support the area’s after-school and summer programs.
Blinkiewicz, a Kalamazoo native, came back to Southwest Michigan from Detroit in 2005, where she had worked with the Skillman Foundation in developing the same kind of programs seen at KYD Network today. But when she arrived here, she saw a bigger purpose for KYD Network than the “middle man role” it was serving.
“I kept saying, ‘This can be so much more impactful. It’s time to put the pedal to the metal and get to work.’
“We have become a true systems builder, kind of like the glue that binds together the out-of-school-time sector. We went from being a convener of groups to a true collective force with a shared vision and approaches to developing the potential of young people.”
KYD Network has grown from seven to 60 partner organizations in the past five years, receiving nonprofit status in 2018. Funded by a handful of foundations and private donors, KYD Network helps its partner organizations serve between 3,000 and 4,000 youth each year with a range of programming during after-school hours and summer months.
The types of programs offered by the groups that affiliate with KYD Network are diverse — some focus on poetry and writing, others on sports like basketball, others on fine art — but all of the groups are committed to continuous improvement in how they deliver their services as well as to ensuring that the kids they serve have a voice in what programming is offered, Blinkiewicz says.
“We want to make sure that the groups we partner with are never happy with the status quo. We are constantly seeking ways to improve.”
Breaking down barriers
At the heart of KYD Network’s efforts is breaking down the barriers that create inequities in education, so that every young person in Kalamazoo County is college- or career-ready by the time they are 21. KYD Network does this by guiding cohort members through the Youth Program Quality Intervention (YPQI), a continuous quality improvement process created by the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality. This process allows cohort members to collect data in different areas — quality, social emotional learning (SEL), family engagement, youth leadership and inclusion and equity — and to use data to establish goals. KYD Network provides training and coaching to youth-serving organizations so that program quality improves and youth gain critical social emotional learning skills.
“This isn’t latchkey,” says Blinkiewicz, meaning the programming is not simply supervised care before or after school. “We support social and emotional learning for kids and know that this work leads to higher-quality learning environments and better academic performance and behavior.”
KYD Network says research shows that if a child’s participation in high-quality out-of-school-time (OST) programs is frequent and consistent, then by fifth grade the gap between the math test scores of low- and high-income students is significantly reduced. Also, youth who participate in these programs are more likely to engage in school and graduate from high school.
Furthermore, research has shown the importance of educating and supporting the whole child — attending to each child’s emotional needs and helping the child develop skills related to empathy and belief in oneself — in order to help the child realize his or her full potential, Blinkiewicz says.
It is work that is perhaps more important than ever, as social-media platforms have started to replace meaningful, in-person modes of connection and the growth that results from those, she says.
“Students are connecting, but they’re sometimes not connected,” Blinkiewicz says. “In this age of expressing yourself with emojis, it’s about having an impact on the life skills of youth, skills we all need.”
Youth from low-income homes are sometimes in greatest need of the kinds of programs provided by KYD Network’s partner organizations, and there are many low-income homes in Kalamazoo County. Of the almost 50,000 school-age students in the county, half live in households that qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.
It is KYD Network’s ambition to ensure that, beginning in 2021, all students in the county are college- or career- and community-ready by the time they graduate from high school. (The average graduation rate in Kalamazoo County is currently 73 percent.) To that end, inclusion and equity, advocacy and youth leadership development are key parts of the training and assistance KYD Network staff provide their partner organizations.
Sam Lealofi is the executive director of Eastside Youth Strong, a youth development and support agency that serves about 300 kids and teens from Kalamazoo’s Eastside and Eastwood neighborhoods. It began partnering with KYD Network seven years ago.
“We wanted to be part of a model that follows evidence-based results,” she says, “and KYD Network provides the training for our staff and support when we need it.”
In participating with this KYD Network partner organization, students are assessed with the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment, which looks at eight social and emotional skill domains of a child, such as self-awareness, relationship skills and personal responsibility. This assessment gives Lealofi and her staff an idea about each of their young participants’ strengths and weaknesses based on national averages, and where individualized focus should be aimed to help them make improvements.
“Some of our kids don’t get those skills taught at home, and teachers often don’t have the time to teach them either,” Lealofi says. “But having these skills is integral for a child as they grow and mature. If they don’t have them, they are going to struggle in life.”
KYD Network also supports what they call affinity groups — specialized programs their partners offer that focus on one particular issue. Members have learned that youth who participate in an intentional SEL strategy over a sustained period of time have higher grade-point averages, score higher on standardized tests and are less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors.
To inform its work, the organization examines youth issues through an equity and trauma-informed lens, including how race and lack of economic opportunities can affect a child’s sense of self-worth and ability to reach their full potential, Blinkiewicz says.
There’s an indication that KYD Network is not alone in its efforts.
“The state of Michigan is moving toward a more ‘whole child’ model of education,” Blinkiewicz says. “It’s an exciting time to be involved in this work. We are seeing the power of cooperation, the power of ‘we.’”