From Theory to Practice in the Design and Evaluation of Youth Development Programs: A Case Study; Demands to Justify Their Programs Scientifically Have Led Park and Recreation Practitioners to Seek Training in Research Methods. A Recent Training Program Shows How This Need Was Met

Article excerpt

There is a growing interest in the concept of youth development, prevention courses, and related evaluation assessments among educators, researchers, and practitioners (Arthur, Hawkins, Pollard, Catalano, & Baglioni, 2002; Baldwin, 2000; Ennett et al., 2003; Hallfors & Godette, 2002). This interest has challenged professional practices relative to the design, implementation, and evaluation of youth development programs. According to Ellis, Braff, and Hutchinson (2001), there is an interest to move beyond the provision of facilities and equipment for traditional sports activities to the development of programs that will achieve specific goals beneficial to youths. Health professionals are giving more attention to what constitutes effectiveness in programs: structured versus nonstructured, interactive versus noninteractive, and evidence-based versus departmentally created. Moyer, Verhovsek, and Wilson (1997) postulated that health professionals have become interested in the use of a logic model to facilitate program evaluation. However, the application of this research knowledge has been limited and remains a challenge for youth development professionals (Ennett et al., 2003; Hallfors & Godette, 2002).

This article aims to shed light on the need for continuous training and staff development in the areas of program development and documentation, using the observations and deductions from a field occurrence experienced by the author as she worked with a group of youth development practitioners in Florida. The author shares a strategy (the Step-by-Step Flow Chart) designed to help practitioners to understand the research process and translate it into action.

These practitioners, parks and recreation professionals, offered programs on sport, leisure education, drug education, decision making, conflict resolution, and self-esteem building through dance and cultural events. To expand the program offerings, they were interested in seeking funding from the Governor's Drug-Free Communities Title IV Program. To the practitioners' surprise, they were required to demonstrate the effectiveness of their programs and theory-driven approach before competing for state funding. Specifically, they were required to show how theory had influenced the development of their programs, strategies, and learning outcomes, and how it had been documented. This requirement seemed overwhelming and intimidating to them, and they did not know where to start in order to fulfill this requirement. They realized their program designs were ineffective because they were not theory-driven or based on prevention standards. They reported this dilemma to the executive director of the Florida Recreation and Park Association, who involved the author.

The response of these parks and recreation practitioners corroborated Henderson's (2002) assertion that "practitioners are intimidated by scientific research and have problems translating research methods into practice." Parks and recreation programs are often based on common sense, good intentions, or prevailing social trends. Baker and Witt (2000) stated that recreation professionals are quick to advocate outcomes such as increased self-esteem, improved school achievement, and better communication skills, without adequately explaining the actual relationship between recreation and these outcomes. Some health, physical education, and recreation programmers have short-term, single-focused programs, like one-day workshops on self-esteem as prevention programs. However, scientific research requires a comprehensive and systematic process that is governed by critical decisions (Cato, Chen, & Corbett-Perez, 1998; Hallfors & Goodette, 2002; Moyer et al., 1997).

Youth development professionals increasingly find themselves operating in a world requiring diverse, comprehensive research-based programs and complementary program justifications. For the sake of credibility, it has become essential for youth development providers to link the theoretical foundation, the program design, and the evaluation (McKenzie & Smeltzer, 1997). …