Young people need developmental opportunities to help them thrive, both now and into adulthood. Effective and engaging social programs for disadvantaged young people are challenging to develop, operate, and sustain. Moreover, experimental evaluations of such programs often show limited impact and replicability. To address the challenges and opportunities in the youth development field (and in many other fields), a growing number of nonprofit leaders, funders, and researchers have embraced the use of research to demonstrate, understand, and improve the impacts of social programs.
This case study draws on the experiences of one organization, Youth Guidance, and one of its programs, Becoming A Man (BAM™), to illustrate how the organization’s leadership and staff use diverse evaluation findings to generate important questions in a continuous process of strengthening its evidence base.
BAM is a program for young men in high school, particularly young men of color living in disadvantaged communities. The program supports the young men’s abilities to navigate a healthy transition to manhood by providing cognitive behavioral therapy, a peer group led by a facilitator they can relate with, and development of social emotional skills and important values. Program participants attend weekly group sessions for at least a year, receiving individual counseling, and they are exposed to a 30-lesson curriculum with diverse activities. To date, BAM has been implemented in schools in both Chicago and Boston. From 2009 to 2015, BAM was evaluated through several randomized controlled trials (RCT), with each RCT extending the program’s reach to serve more and more youth across more schools, and a qualitative study to assess its impacts.
This case study shows that understanding and improving a program is an ongoing process—one that does not end with one or even multiple RCTs. The BAM program complemented impact studies with qualitative methods to more deeply understand the program’s core components and mechanisms. BAM has undergone several well-designed RCTs, and the overall positive results show increases in high school graduation rates and decreases in arrests. But the results vary across different BAM sites, programs of different length, and different studies. These variations have driven Youth Guidance staff members to ask questions that are key to understanding how to achieve greater impact. Therefore, instead of seeing the RCT results as the summation of evaluation efforts, staff see them as crucial indicators that guide the program’s ongoing development.
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