Adult Learning Communities Fostered Positive Youth Development in Philadelphia’s Generation Work Partnership

Publication Date:

October 01, 2020

Employment training organizations vary widely in how they approach supporting young people as they enter the workforce: Some organizations provide young people with basic skills instruction (e.g., math, literacy, or computer skills), some emphasize specific occupational skills (e.g., project management or mechanical skills), and some help young people immediately find open positions with employer partners; many organizations provide a combination of these services. In addition to providing a diversity of services, many organizations also feature diversity in the youth they serve (in terms of background, identity, and level of need). Youth-serving organizations carry the responsibility of understanding each individual and providing a variety of services that are best suited to meet their unique needs.

One approach that can help providers focus on their clients’ individuality is to use a positive youth development (PYD) approach. A PYD approach focuses on young people’s individual goals and strengths. Organizations can better meet the needs of individual youth by developing strong relationships with young people; ensuring physically and emotionally safe environments; strengthening linkages between organizations, families, and communities; and improving youth’s developmentally appropriate skills (e.g., academic, soft, technical). Organizations often struggle to identify concrete ways to implement PYD approaches consistently for all participants, and many report a desire for a PYD-specific training to offer their staff. However, a PYD approach requires nimble and creative thinking on the part of staff and an organizational culture that supports both staff and young people—a much heavier lift than simply sending staff to a training.

Through a series of interviews during a three-day site visit, Child Trends researchers identified how the Practitioner Learning Community (referred to hereafter as the learning community) developed key processes that allowed it to improve organizations’ collaboration in support of youth and young adult participants in Philadelphia through positive, developmentally appropriate approaches. The learning community represented a space for staff in organizations across the city to get to know one another, provided opportunities for staff to learn about different skills and methods to support young people using a PYD approach, and allowed individual staff members to better understand the competitive advantage(s) of other organizations—particularly for the sake of referring youth to programs better suited to their needs.

About this case study

This case study is one of five that examine how local partnerships in the Generation Work initiative have scaled up and supported the use of PYD approaches in training programs for young people who seek high-quality training and employment. The case studies grew from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s interest in learning more about how the five local partnerships integrate PYD approaches in workforce training settings for youth, in order to generate systematic knowledge about PYD that other workforce training practitioners can apply.

Key findings

Organizations that formed the learning community incorporated positive youth development principles in their work—sometimes explicitly but more often implicitly. This was observed both in terms of how the learning community was structured to create a safe space but also in terms of how it grew and the content the larger group introduced to more junior staff members. Analyses from Child Trends’ interviews of learning community members identified a number of key findings. These include two findings about the process that adult learning community members used to develop trusting and mutually beneficial relationships with one another, in addition to three findings about results related to positive supports for young adults that stemmed from the learning community. The lessons learned in Philadelphia can be useful to other cities seeking to develop more collaborative employment training systems.

  • Limiting the group to mid-level managers and protecting dedicated meeting time facilitated open and constructive cross-program dialogue. This allowed the learning community members (mid-level managers) to develop trusting relationships and understand the common challenges they face in implementing workforce training programs.
  • Hiring an outside facilitator helped learning community members identify and implement an intentional and structured process to build trusting relationships and address shared challenges.
  • Many learning community relationships continued, even as staff moved to other jobs or even other organizations. This allowed a more integrated network of practitioners to continue their support of one another and their young adult participants as their work changed or they moved into more senior management positions.
  • Members of the learning community observed that direct-service staff often lacked opportunities to meet peers from other organizations. Because of the degree to which they valued the productive relationships they developed while participating in learning community discussions, they decided to create similar opportunities for junior staff.
  • Learning community members used their collective voice to advocate for specific ideas or changes that were needed to better serve youth, such as developing a better referral system.