Eric Brown and Penny Sebring discuss "connected learning," which entails peer culture, student interest and a link to academics or civic engagement.

An after-school program at the Chicago Public Library that attracts 350-500 high-school students each week offers a hybrid of teen-driven choices and adult mentoring. Whether and how that type of program could be offered in Evanston was the subject of a brief debate on March 6 at a program sponsored by the McGaw Y and Youth Organizations Umbrella (Y.O.U.).

Dr. Penny Sebring of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and Eric Brown, a Ph.D. candidate in Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy presented their findings from a three-year study of YOUMedia, a collaboration among the Chicago Public Library (space), the Digital Youth Network (most of the staff and mentors) and the MacArthur (funding).

YOUMedia, housed at the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago, is free and open 45 hours a week to kids who are enrolled in a high school in Chicago and who have a library card. Kids can make their own decisions about how to use their time – studying, writing poetry, socializing, designing games, writing music or poetry or just hanging out. Adults are on hand as mentors to listen and to offer mostly solicited advice.

“YOUMedia is an example of connected learning,” Dr. Sebring said, which incorporated students’ interests, peer culture and academic content. “To optimize learning we need to bring depth. The students should follow their passion with the support of peers and caring adults and link that to academic performance or civic engagement.”

Dr. Sebring and Mr. Brown’s study found that two-thirds of the participants in YOUMedia are African American, and the largest group (40 percent) is African American males. At least 75 percent live about five miles from the library – indicating, said Dr. Sebring, that the kids make an effort to get there. About a third of the students attend selective-enrollment schools in Chicago and about 75 percent have high-speed Internet at home.

The benefits that the teens reported from YOUMedia are the personal connection with mentors, widening of their horizons and options for careers and the feeling that they are important members of a community. Most reported improvement in academic skills, school work and communication with adults.

Mr. Brown said the role of mentoring can be tricky: A mentor has to be a Pied Piper, teacher, resource provider, collaborator, program designer and counselor and to “just be there for students.” Too structured a program can result in low engagement and high attrition, he said.

YOUMedia is being replicated (“remixed”) in several places across the country, Mr. Brown said. Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, McGaw Y CEO Bill Geiger and YOU Executive Director Seth Green discussed whether, how and in what form a similar program could come to Evanston.

Mayor Tisdahl said, “This kind of program would be beneficial to Evanston.” She spoke about how her preconceptions about high-schoolers and poetry had been exploded at a recent poetry recital she attended at Evanston Township High School: “There were hundreds of kids, predominantly African American – a good distribution of boys and girls – who recited their poems and listened respectfully to others. ETHS kids in large numbers want to write poetry, want to hear poetry.”

Mr. Geiger said he felt the message of the evening was “welcoming” – how to make kids feel safe and welcome. “If we can’t get it done here in Evanston, where else can it get done?”

Mr. Green said the YOUMedia program “reframes for these kids the sense of who they are. It meets kids at their interest.” He said the program seemed both exciting and challenging for YOU, because a good part of kids’ time at YOU is spent on structured programs, such as academics and homework. “We want to make our kids come alive but also be sure they are performing academically.”

Connected learning

Discussion may continue through the boards of the two organizations and perhaps through Teen Town, one of the Evanston 150 projects. Its goal is to create a “youth development center.”

Evanston already has some partnerships in learning. The Senior Studies program at ETHS uses the connected learning model to offer seniors a chance to study the community and come up with a project to address a perceived need, said Assistant Superintendent Dr. Peter Bavis. Even more closely allied with the three elements of connected learning – student interest, peer culture and a link to academic or civic engagement – is the FUSE program, he said. The FUSE program is a collaboration among Northwestern University, the Evanston Public Library and ETHS. Northwestern’s office of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) offers two free, drop-in FUSE studios: on Saturdays at the Teen Loft at the Main Library, 1703 Orrington Ave. (for middle school and high school students), and from 3:45 to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays at ETHS (for high school students only). More information is available at www.osep.northwestern.edu/projects/fuse. Times are available at epl.org.