Good Works

For the Whole Child

KYD Network supports those providing critical youth programs
KYD Network staff members, left to right: Stacy Jackson, Lilly Mazzone, Meg Blinkiewicz, Ashley Lanting, Elizabeth Garcia and Abra Steppes.

© 2020 Encore Publications/Brian Powers

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.”

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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.

Evidence-based results

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.’”

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KYD Network’s efforts continue during COVID-19 crisis

For an organization such as KYD Network that focuses on after-school and out-of-school programs for youth, the COVID-19 closures of schools, businesses and organizations have made out-of-school time all the time.

That means the staff at KYD Network and its partner organizations are working even harder than before.

KYD Network Executive Director Meg Blinkiewicz answered these questions by email about how the organization has adapted during the pandemic:

How have the COVID-19 restrictions and closures impacted what KYD Network does?

KYD Network quickly reached out to each cohort member to ask about their individual needs and what supports they would like from us. As a result, we have:

• Provided numerous virtual professional development workshops for youth development professionals and will continue to do so until the shelter-in-place order is lifted. We have had up to 40 individuals participate in the virtual trainings and have received positive feedback.

• Continued to convene our Affinity Groups virtually. We had over 40 individuals participate in our Inclusion and Equity Affinity Group, during which we discussed "COVID-19 Through an Inclusion and Equity Lens," looking at the inequitable access to technology that many of our families face. We want to address this inequity so that youth and families can take full advantage of what local school districts are offering and what our cohort members will be providing through online learning platforms. We learned about different hot-spot options and are coordinating our efforts with local school districts, nonprofits and our cohort members to provide hot spots in neighborhoods in need of this support. We hosted a workshop on virtual learning on April 10, during which Don Neal from Wayne State University demonstrated the virtual learning platforms they are using with 16 sites in Detroit.

• Partnered with Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes and the Boys and Girls Clubs to distribute 150 boxes of food every Friday to BGC members. We have had assistance from Kalamazoo College, the Kalamazoo Nature Center and Fresh Food is Fun in this process.

Finally, we are in the process of convening online youth forums so that we can hear from them regarding how they are faring, what they would like from us, and how the community as a whole can come together. We want to ensure that we intentionally provide space for youth voices during this time.

How will this impact KYD Network’s summer youth programs?

We are in the process of revising our summer plans so that the entire cohort can quickly open their doors to youth once the shelter-in-place order is lifted. We have two weeks of summer training for staff that we will be able to offer at different times once we know when the order will be lifted. We have offered two summer trainings already and are coordinating with Kalamazoo Public Schools to more deeply align our summer work with their curriculum so that we can minimize the "COVID and summer slide."

How are your partner organizations faring?

None of our organizations are serving youth in person. Most are attempting to identify online learning options, as are we. Some of our organizations are able to pay staff during this time and have staff participate in training and planning activities. All are quite anxious to be able to be with the youth and families they serve.

Why are KYD Network's efforts so important during this time?

Now, more than ever, the out-of-school time sector matters. We know that schools do so much more than support academic learning and that learning doesn't just happen in schools. We know that youth annually spend 1,000 of their 6,000 waking hours in school. One-third of our 16- to 19-year-olds have jobs. The bulk of the remaining time is spent informally with adults or friends.

As thought leader Karen Pittman stated recently, "Learning happens everywhere. Educational equity, therefore, can't stop at the schoolhouse doors." She encourages us to use the summer to imagine what a true partnership among schools, the out-of-school sector, youth and families can look like. We are committed to ensuring we have universal quality in learning environments, be they in or out of school so that all Kalamazoo County youth are college-, career-, and community-ready by 21.

We are committed to maintaining our innovations beyond this crisis and to addressing inequities in a more impactful way. We are painfully aware that the impact of this crisis is not equal and that marginalized communities have been impacted more negatively than privileged communities. We hold ourselves accountable to reducing structural barriers to success for our youth and families.