Boosting Your Recruitment and Enrollment, Lessons from a New York Beacon Center

Walis Johnson, Youth Development Institute
November 19, 2008

A special to CFK, this article is the first in an ongoing series from the Youth Development Institute (YDI) that will focus on recruiting and enrolling young people in quality out-of-school programs. To learn more, visit the YDI site.

Developing a quality out-of-school time program is no small feat. Yet even when you've done that, your work is not over—making sure the community knows it's there and young people participate is another challenge.

Cypress Hills-East New York, a Beacon Center located in Brooklyn, developed a strategy for recruiting and enrolling youth ages 9 to 14 for its school-year program. (Beacons are public school-based community centers that offer a range of activities during out-of-school hours.)

The Youth Development Institute offers this look at what worked for Cypress Hills-East New York.

What the Research Says

The Harvard Family Research Project is a great site to get some of the latest research on effective middle school recruitment practice. Here are some things to consider from the article Moving Beyond the Barriers: Attracting and Sustaining Youth Participation in OST Programs:

  • Programs need to help you understand the value of participation and that frequent participation leads to a "brighter future."


  • Show families the opportunities associated with participation: in several evaluations of elementary and middle school programs, children and youth indicated that they attend an after-school program because their parents want them to attend. If parents know that their kids are safe, able to do their homework and have fun activities they are likely to encourage their children to attend.


  • Reach out directly to youth and their families. Phone calls and home visits are effective means of recruitment.

Practice Highlight: School Recruitment and Enrollment

The Challenge. Cypress staff started early with a plan for fall recruitment. They took the last day of program's attendance list and called all those parents to tell them about the array of activities available at the Beacon in the fall. They sent parents enrollment forms and encouraged them to register their children. The staff then reached out by mail to all the former Beacon participants and consulted with the principal to recruit young people who participated in summer school.

The Results. Cypress now has a total of 75 middle school youth participants (three groups of 25) in the new Beacon Ladders of Leadership programs with an average of 23 per group who attend each day.

  • Participation in the counselor-in-training program increased from 10 to 25 youth this year.


  • The new Leaders in Training program (LIT) has 25 middle school youth.


  • The new Hybrid program has 25 middle school young people; averaging 25 a day.

The middle school program slots are filled and the program has a wait list!

Key Recommendations:

  • Be intentional: have a plan and set enrollment number goals—start early in the summer!


  • Check the data—find out which youth had the most consistent attendance in the previous year's and summer programs and reach out to them and their parents.


  • Send out registration forms to parents and youth early, before decisions are made.


  • Reach out to Beacon participants from the previous year.


  • Implement focus groups to learn about what activities youth want and how to reach young people who don't currently attend your program.


  • Anticipate attrition so over enroll.


  • The right staff matter—make sure that your staff are people that middle school youth flock to!

For More Information

  • Moving Beyond the Barriers by the Harvard Family Research Project is a great resource for other useful tips on recruiting and engaging middle school youth.


  • For more on the Beacons Young Adolescent Initiative, which helps Beacons and other out-of-school time programs increase the participation, engagement and retention of young adolescents ages 9 to 14, visit the Youth Development Institute site.


Walis Johnson directs Youth Development Institute's Beacons Young Adolescent Initiative, a four-year project to improve outcomes for young people ages 9 to 14 by increasing their participation in high-quality activities during the after-school, evening, and weekend hours.