I just got back from meeting with other organizations around the country delivering the TOP pregnancy prevention/youth development program to youth in state care. We all bring the model to high-need young people under federal demonstration and research grants, and sitting down together for the first time was the beginning of something — dare I say? — beautiful.
TOP (the Teen Outreach Program, developed by Wyman) has been studied for 30 years and consistently demonstrates strong outcomes for youth: substantially lower pregnancy rates and school suspensions among participants, and higher graduation rates. It’s one of the better-known and most popular models out there. But until now, TOP had primarily been used in public schools with mainstream kids.
How would it work for the far more vulnerable youth in state care, many of whom are in congregate settings and attend specialized schools? When we started our work in Connecticut four years ago, we didn’t know for sure. For one thing, the regular TOP model requires a nine-month “dose,” meaning youth attend one session (or “club”) per week throughout the school year. But with states reducing congregate care stays, many youth aren’t in residence, or even in the local area, for nine months. To meet this issue head on, a few members of our group, like Oasis Center in Nashville, are using a new four-month version of the program; Youth Catalytics will soon be implementing this shortened version as well.
Another concern was the model itself. In some ways, TOP would be familiar to anyone working with transition-aged youth. The hour-long sessions emphasize decision-making, self-esteem, teamwork, and hard and soft life skills. But a distinguishing feature of TOP — its “secret sauce,” as an evaluator put it — is its requirement that youth plan and carry out regular community service-learning projects. But could young people in semi-secure facilities actually do community service? Initially, our practice partners in Connecticut were skeptical. What worked for typical public school kids wouldn’t necessarily work with theirs.
But now we all have a few years of experience under our belts. With occasional adjustments, TOP has worked. Not just for us in Connecticut, but for nonprofits and state agencies running large TOP programs in Tennessee, Arizona, Michigan and Indiana. Though we work with somewhat different youth populations, it doesn’t seem to matter; whether they’re unaccompanied refugee youth or teens in juvenile detention, young people like the program. One teacher in an alternative school in Connecticut told us that TOP is without question “the best thing” that the girls in her school have done, the one thing that some of the girls look forward to and actually want to do. Considering the trauma and disconnection these teens have experienced, that kind of engagement is worth a great deal.
Then there’s this: One of the states using TOP in its foster care and juvenile justice programs has found that the model leads to large — really large — reductions in behavioral incidents and in youth running away from group homes, and possibly to greater staff retention (they’re still looking at that one). In that particular project, the state decided to train all direct-staff in the model, not just the adults facilitating the clubs. For most staff, it was their only exposure to youth development training, so it’s not hard to understand why it would be so helpful: less escalation, more searching for root causes of outbursts rather than reacting to the outburst itself. When working with youth is less of a battle, it’s more rewarding, and staff stay in their jobs longer.
In the coming years we’ll be bringing TOP into more agencies, and assisting Wyman with the data-collection that will validate that shorter, four-month model. We’ll also be looking hard at the settings that TOP can thrive in, and at how the model can become institutionalized in care settings.
In short, we’re still figuring some things out. But with so few powerful interventions for young people in state custody, it’s good to be on the trail of one.
See more about TOP here.
~ Melanie Wilson, Research Director, Youth Catalytics