Fall-Winter 2002-2003

CTCs for Positive Youth Development: Findings from PowerUP's First Phase Evaluation
by Lisa Schneider and William Vesneski

Community Technology and Positive Youth Development

PowerUP is a national digital divide initiative whose mission is to ensure that America's underserved youth acquire the skills, experiences and resources they need to succeed in the digital age.  Since the organization was launched in November of 1999, PowerUP has supported hundreds of local community technology centers by providing technology resources and youth development programming in communities across the United States and Puerto Rico.  PowerUP creates and supports local centers by donating computer hardware and software, Internet connectivity, technical assistance, and staff training and support. In addition, it has created and disseminated an online youth development curriculum for use by local centers. This curriculum is organized around the Five Promises of America's Promise:

  • Ongoing relationships with caring adults,
  • Safe places with structured activities during non-school hours,
  • A healthy start,
  • Marketable skills through effective education, and
  • Opportunities to give back through community service.

An evaluation of the PowerUP program documents the ways in which the resources provided are used and valued by local centers.  Our evaluation report also provides a profile of the young people who are utilizing the PowerUP centers and, most importantly, presents an exploratory assessment of how the program is improving the lives of those attending the centers.  The evaluation was performed by E-Valuate and completed in January 2002, focusing on the 326 centers established during PowerUP's first phase of operation.  Methods include program director surveys and interviews, guided observation of local center activities, and interviews with more than 100 youth participants from around the country.

Here we present findings relevant to the structure, programming, and goals of local PowerUP centers.  We also report on some of the most poignant findings—those concerning participants' experiences in the centers.  Please access the full evaluation report for more information on background and methods, and for elaboration of these and other findings.

Local Programming and Goals

Evaluation findings illustrate the incredible organizational, cultural and physical diversity of program settings within the national PowerUP network.  For example, centers are housed in Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, schools, independent nonprofit community centers, and business development agencies.  These centers use non-uniform curricula to serve youth who vary tremendously by age, ability, and need, and they operate within a multitude of programming structures with varied capabilities. 

Despite these significant differences, the evaluation data point to clear trends in program structure and implementation.  Specifically, centers are generally open during after-school hours, on weekday afternoons and evenings, and attended by an average of 195 youth per week.  While PowerUP's target age range is 5-18 years, youth of late-elementary and middle school ages are the most prevalent, as over 60% of program participants are between the ages of 8 and 13.  Although centers report staffing to be a significant challenge, they maintain an admirable 1 to 13 staff to youth ratio. Most importantly, our findings make it clear that center staff are remarkably dynamic, committed, and effective.

Despite significant diversity in local priorities and curricula, consistency in central program goals and focus is evident.  In general, PowerUP centers share the common youth outcome goals of computer literacy and educational achievement.  Centers also tend to structure their programming around the following top five activities: 1) Internet access and web surfing; 2) creative activities such as digital imaging and multimedia projects; 3) educational activities including homework and schoolwork presentations; 4) basic computer training; and 5) word processing.  The use of desktop applications is common in the centers, with MS Word, Publisher, PowerPoint, and Mavis Beacon Typing software ranking as the most valued and most often utilized applications.  Although structured, staff-guided activities are the norm, the vast majority of programs also devote an average of eight hours per week to "open lab," when youth can engage in supervised, but unstructured, use of the computers and the Internet.

Caring Adults in the Centers

When youth were asked, in interviews and surveys, what they liked the most about the center, they overwhelmingly indicated that PowerUP was a safe place where they had opportunities to forge meaningful connections with caring adults.  A full one hundred percent of youth interviewed reported positive, warm relationships with adults in the PowerUP lab.  Illustrating this finding are the following typical comments made by youth:

[The staff are] very respectful. [They] help you with questions you don't know. [They] show you a nice smile. Nice. Help you. They're generous. They want you to feel welcome. Even if I don't know them they are still really nice to me. Feel safe, like parents. I've known them more than 2 years.

Local staff are also sensitive to their importance in the lives of the young people they work with. During the evaluation team's visits to local sites, staff described the trusting relationships they develop with youth and they provided examples of the ways in which their centers place children at the forefront of operations.  The following quotes from center staff capture the positive nature of their relationships with youth participants:

Young people are made to feel that there is always someone that they can turn to when there is a need for help. Trusting, positive [relationships], and the kids are given the sense of competence, usefulness, belonging, and influence. Sometimes teens just need to talk. They'll tell me what they've been doing. And I'm like: 'You're doing that?! Do your parents know?' They talk about things they won't talk to their parents about, and you gradually build up that kind of rapport.

These findings underscore the high caliber and caring approach of PowerUP center staff.  Staff members exhibit the type of passionate dedication to youth that has been found to be the most essential element for the success of youth-serving programs.

Safe Places with Structured Activities

Similarly, the evaluation data strongly support a characterization of PowerUP centers as physically and emotionally safe environments offering constructive activities.  When local staff were asked what they believed was the most valuable thing their center does for youth, one of the most common responses was "providing a safe and positive place to be."  Staff indicate that they create a physically safe and nurturing environment by:  1) offering skilled and caring supervision; 2) maintaining a clean, orderly, and inviting center;  3) setting clear and firm expectations for center behavior;  and 4) controlling access to children by way of locks, sign-in sheets, and receptionists. Youth concur with staff perceptions of safety, as more than 96% of participants reported feeling safe in the computer center.  Youth comments indicate that centers provide not only a physically safe space, but also an emotional refuge.  The following youth statements illustrate this finding:

The adults make it feel pretty safe. Nothing could harm you here. I feel safe because [the center] has people that would risk their lives for us ...

No one picks on you.  It's fair, you get a turn.  There's no minority, no one's dissin' you.  It feels like I am free and could do anything in there.


The full evaluation report provides extensive elaboration on the PowerUP program and participants, and it highlights other important findings, especially in relation to marketable skill development.  Here we have presented one of the most compelling, overarching messages which emerged from the evaluation study:  It is the people, the staff, in these centers that make these programs what they are.  In these centers youth are surrounded by adults whom they trust, confide in, and look to for mentorship and coaching. For their part, the adults know how important they are to the young people. One Americorps/VISTA member who directs a PowerUP program in rural Kentucky summed up her role and the promise of her program in this way:  

I am so pleased to be a part of helping bring this opportunity to the children I live near and love.  I work as an Americorps VISTA in my home community and I feel this has been the best year of my life. I grew up with people here who, like my own husband, are finally seeing that computer skills are the way out of the coal mines—the low paying dirt jobs which were the stark realities faced by our youth...they are being erased for our children by people and organizations like PowerUP.

Lisa Schneider, Ph.D. until recently, was the Senior Director of Research & Evaluation for PowerUP. She continues her work in research and evaluation in areas related to community education and technology; youth development and education; class, race, and gender inequalities; and health education and community health. William Vesneski, JD, MSW, was the lead evaluator for the PowerUP evaluation project. He provides evaluation consultation to nonprofits in the Pacific Northwest and Washington, DC regions through The Evaluate Group and is the Director of Evaluation and Knowledge Services for Training Resources for the Environmental Community.

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