Carving Up the Kids

Joyce Dryfoos
September 1, 1998

People who run youth programs know how much time you have to spend to raise money. A reputable youth worker described how he changed the title of each proposal in keeping with the disease of the week. If the funders were concerned about substance abuse, then that’s what he said he was trying to prevent. Same for conflict resolution. Teen pregnancy? Sure, we do that. Actually, he was trying to gain support for a comprehensive youth services program. No matter what the proposal said, the essence of that particular program was wrap-around case management in the context of enhanced educational achievement with all the necessary support services that kids need.

Every day we hear about another threatening youth problem to be lumped into what are described as the new morbidities — the consequences of sex, drugs, and violence. As each new problem hits the screen, solutions are proposed in narrow prescriptions. These bureaucratic “categorical programs” are reactive to specific diseases and responsive to defined constituencies. While we all understand that there is an educational establishment, it is less obvious that each disease has its own domain, with gurus, university departments, governmental agencies, centers of research, learned journals, and advocacy groups. We have spawned many separate fields — drug abuse, juvenile justice, teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS prevention, youth employment, youth development, and even self-esteem enhancement. All this takes place alongside the giant school reform movement, but not together with it. School improvement itself is sliced up into all kinds of factions, operations, and strongly held theories. The latest “category” to be carved out may be the president’s proposed $2.7 billion mentoring initiative, America Reads. That news will surely stimulate my estimable colleague to write a new grant proposal for hiring mentors.

Yet, if you look at the young people of our nation, you will find they are as vulnerable as ever to the effects of the new morbidities. We have the highest rates of categorical problem behaviors in the world. One reason for our failure to bring down our rates is that we have carved up the children and tried to treat them in pieces: a couple of hours of drug prevention here, a little “saying no to sex” there. At the same time, the most vulnerable kids are stuck in over-crowded ineffective classrooms and dangerous neighborhoods, where their futures are at peril.

The failure of the categorical prevention approach and the failure of the educational system are not related. None of the streams are strong enough by themselves to turn the lives of young people around. Youth workers in schools and community programs are beginning to believe that their programs will be more effective if they are brought together and centered on the total well-being of the child, the family, and the community.
This theory is being put into practice by the emergence of an array of school/community partnerships whereby school buildings are being transformed into centers of learning and community hubs. Community agency and school personnel work together to create an environment that will produce strong learners ready to participate in the labor force of the future. The new morbidities are dealt with comprehensively, by providing access to individual and group guidance and by integrating information into courses.

The nation’s troubled cities and blighted rural areas should look seriously at the development of new kids of institutional arrangements. Many schools already have extended hours and offer resources for parents, community services, and primary health care. The child welfare system is looking for a place to locate case managers and child care. The police department wants to fan out into the community in positive ways. The imperiled school system should welcome the infusion of categorical resources that can be put together in creative ways to generate better institutions for the coming century.

Carving up the kids doesn’t work. What does work is treating them as whole people who need both cognitive skills and social supports.

Joy Dryfoos is an independent researcher and writer in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

Dryfoos, Joy. "Carving Up the Kids."Youth Today, September 1998, p. 62.

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