In 2012, YRNO began the Future Leaders Initiative, a service-learning program that combines classroom curriculum with community service opportunities. Students receive instruction focused on preparing them for life outside high school. They are mentored and taught from a unique set of lesson plans not found in a traditional school environment. Lessons range from leadership development to personal finance. The goal is to provide students with life and job skills they need to continue their professional development, either through college or meaningful full-time employment.
Planning for the Future Leaders Initiative began in 2011. As the communal trauma of Hurricane Katrina that inspired the creation of YRNO began to recede from the city’s consciousness, the organization noticed that its youth engagement efforts were reaching a less diverse population; specifically, the number of new minority and low-income students volunteering at YRNO was no longer growing. Committed to reaching a diverse youth population, YRNO staff began considering options to better engage underserved youth. The most promising program was the Future Leaders Initiative: if low-income, minority students were not seeking out YRNO, the organization would go to them.
To reach some of our community’s most underserved youth, YRNO launched the program at Sci Academy, a college preparatory open-enrollment charter school where the majority of students are African American and qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. In partnership with the school, YRNO worked to expand the service-learning opportunities available to students.
Believing that the most effective way to reach students and develop youth leaders is by engaging them in their schools and through their classroom teachers, YRNO places staff members at the partner school, working with students and teachers to integrate service learning into the curriculum (e.g. helping a geometry class to use triangles to construct a bench for the school). In addition, YRNO staff work one-on-one with Sci Academy students to empower them to pursue their own community service and professional leadership development interests.
Regardless of whether students seek a career or a college path, our curriculum was developed to help them grow, learn and mature. They may learn to build benches and planters on campus in order to develop construction skills and provide students with a sense of civic pride, or receive instruction aimed at reinforcing classroom lessons such as public speaking, mathematics and critical thinking. Although tested on a relatively small pool of students, we did see marked improvement in behavioral qualities such as respect, attendance, and responsibility. Students also demonstrated increased marketable life skills such as attention to detail, initiative and leadership potential.
To date, the program has facilitated multiple student-led, service-learning projects with more than 180 total student participants contributing over 1,000 hours of service. Students designed and built an outdoor classroom, coordinated campus beautification projects, installed a volleyball court and gutted multiple flooded homes after Hurricane Isaac, to name a few. This initiative presents a variety of challenges, engaging students who have rigorous academic demands, financial constraints and often limited family support.