Local Spotlight: Barbara Couto Sipe

Barbara Couto Sipe leads NextUp as the Executive Director. Having previously served as Vice President of Community Impact at United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg and Director of Corporate Relations for United Way Worldwide, she has developed multiple large-scale collective impact initiatives like Smart Beginnings, Youth Development Partnership and Longevity Project.

We talked to Barbara about the importance of after-school programs and how schools and parents can take advantage of these programs to help keep kids engaged.

From your perspective, what are the keys to student engagement in middle school?

Middle schoolers are defined as children in grades 6 through 8 and are usually between the ages of 11 and 14. These years, also referred to as early adolescence, are very busy in terms of brain development as the brain is undergoing its second growth spurt (the first being in early childhood). Middle schoolers are establishing who they are and what they stand for. They are growing into their “own,” and they do this through testing limits, peer relations and exploring interests whether those interests are positive or negative.

The key to engaging a middle schooler is giving them choices, involving them in decision-making, ensuring programs are focused, challenging, active-learning oriented and providing a range of positive experiences.

How can after-school programs strengthen engagement?

There are two ways to answer this question. The first is how after-school programs can strengthen student engagement in school: After-school programs can influence students’ school attendance and behavior most directly by:

  1. Tracking students’ school attendance and creating incentives for good attendance, such as field trips or pizza parties, and
  2. Seeking understanding for the reasons students may be missing school and then working with the school and family to develop solutions.

We often hear a child doesn’t have an alarm clock or a parent is sick and not getting up with the child in the morning, which our program partners address by connecting the student to resources like an alarm clock and by working with the school to ensure adults are following up with the family to assist.

The other way to answer this question is how after-school programs can strengthen student engagement within their own programs. NextUp works with over 30 community organizations and we’ve seen programs that are great at engaging students and some that are not. There are a few things that stand out as differentiators: the instructor is confident, positive, encouraging and prepared – middle schoolers, like most people, want to be appreciated and valued.

At this age, approval by others is paramount and this includes approval by instructors and teachers.Yes, they really do care what the adults in their lives think.

The other important part of this equation is that instructors are prepared for the kids. Middle schoolers’ behaviors breakdown quickly if they are unsure of what to do or are left waiting for the adult to set up activities. With some intentionality in planning, instructors can create transition activities so students are busy while he/she sets up the next activity, or better yet, involve the students in the set up and planning.

How does the Richmond Youth Program Quality Intervention (partnership of UW & MFYC) support your efforts?

Quality standards, professional development and continuous improvement are important parts of a coordinated system of out-of-school time. We’ve contracted with United Way for four years now to provide these elements for our system. Each year, we sponsor the full cost for 15-18 programs to go through the entire YPQI experience while all of our program providers access the Youth Methods trainings throughout the year. I have instructors approach me all the time saying that YPQI has changed the way they interact with kids and that they feel better equipped to facilitate their learning. Quality best-practices are what drive positive outcomes in after-school programs. Richmond YPQI is improving the quality of programs across RVA.

What are some things schools can do to address this issue?

We find that Richmond Public Schools middle school principals are advocates for quality learning enrichments after school. They tell us that they want their students to access arts, STEM, sports and life-skills programs, and they want them to try new things that challenge them. They see our public-private partnership as a way to do this. I think it is critical though that any after-school program recognize that schools have a primary job of educating students and that anything coming into the school or requiring time of schools needs to be able to help schools with their primary job. When there is mission alignment between the school and after-school programming then both parties can serve the student and his/her family better.

What advice would you give to a parent of a middle schooler who is struggling to stay engaged?

Well, I’m a mom of one sixth and one eighth grader, and I’ve also helped three stepsons make their way through school. Some of our kids engaged in middle school well and others really struggled to get through the day, which led to more struggling in high school.

My best piece of advice to parents is to pay attention to who your middle schooler’s friends are, whether your child feels that they even have friends – remember that peer relations is a critical part of development during these years, help them stay on course with school assignments and get them involved in sports and after-school activities in the community or at the school. City and County Parks and Recs have sports leagues for all ages and abilities and every community has a YMCA, Boys and Girls Club and other kinds of programs for kids. Assess what they are good at and help them hone their talents and find other kids with similar interests.

Parenting is a 24/7 job and it is tempting to want to relax a little as they get to this age because they can do so much more for themselves as compared to their elementary years. It was a glorious day in my house when my son could make his own lunch and when I could leave him and his sister at the house alone to run a quick errand. But these middle school years are foundational to their teen/high school years and really do need just as much attention.

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