Leaders of the Missouri Botanical Garden Outdoor Youth Corps felt strongly that their program was making a difference in the lives of the youths it employed, but they wanted proof of its impact.
Enter the Brown School Evaluation Center, founded in 2015 to help organizations figure out what is working, what is not, and changes that might improve outcomes. The Center’s analysis and report not only bolstered the Outdoor Youth Corps’ (OYC) work, but helped make the case for additional funding that enabled the Corps to expand.
“That evaluation helped us greatly,” said Betsy Crites, Manager of Youth and Community Programs at the Garden. “It gave us proof of our effectiveness from a third party, and that was very valuable.”
The Corps is a youth employment program that provides hands-on, outdoor work, with partners like the City of St. Louis Forestry Division, Missouri of Department of Conservation, Bellefontaine Cemetery, and the Great Rivers Greenway. It is part of the St. Louis Green Teen Alliance, a growing consortium of organizations who collectively employ teens in outdoor environmental stewardship jobs across the region.
The Corps helps participants build career skills like job interviewing and preparing resumes, an effort aided by job coaching from Brown School practicum students. Most of the participants are teens recruited from St. Louis city high schools, and the program aims to prepare them for jobs ranging from bioscience to horticulture research to working on the city parks crew.
Heather Jacobsen, a manager at the Evaluation Center, led the inquiry into the OYC program, which involved visiting the youths at work and interviewing each of them. Talking with students in the August heat at a park in North St. Louis under the airport flight path was sometimes challenging, she said, but ultimately rewarding.
“They were all very passionate about their work,” she said. “All spoke to the confidence they had gained, and their leadership skills. As an evaluator, you always hope for an outcome like this.”
Based on the youth’s input, the Evaluation Center recommended including using past participants to help lead the Corps, giving participants more hours and extending activities into the school year.
The suggestion to add more time to the program helped strengthen a successful OYC grant application to extend the program. Crites said the evaluation also helped the OYC partners to think about how they can better work with teens on their own.
Nelson Curran, the Youth Garden Instructor who leads the youth crew, said the evaluation captured the many benefits of the program, which acquaints many of the teens with their first real “green” experience.
“We get to work outside in such a diverse range of activities,” he said. “They go home with stories to tell. It’s an introduction to the benefits of nature.” Field trips included canoeing on the Mississippi River and visits to the Shaw Nature Reserve. “I love the energy and enthusiasm that comes from the crew,” he said.
Curran said support from the Evaluation Center and others in the community “has been a huge plus” and offered positive reinforcement for the teens.
“It empowers them to see value in the work they are doing, and value in their future,” he said.
One of the Evaluation Center’s objectives with the project was to provide the Botanical Garden with the tools to evaluate their processes and the impact they have with youth and in communities.
“It can be difficult for organizations to know what questions to ask, what data to collect, and how to analyze data to obtain evidence-based conclusions that are not skewed by the organization’s beliefs or perspective,” Jacobsen noted.
“We worked with the Garden staff on evaluation best practices, so they could accurately collect data from future participants in the program,” she said. “This is an invaluable skillset for organizations who want to ensure, on an ongoing basis, their programs are having the desired effect.”
Evaluation Center Director Nancy Mueller agrees. “This is key to our Center’s mission. Along with offering our evaluation services, analysis and expertise, we want to help organizations develop their own customized toolbox for growth and impact.”
To learn more about the Evaluation Center’s Services, visit evaluationcenter.wustl.edu.