April 1996 // Volume 34 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA4

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Working Across Program Areas: Children-, Youth-, and Families-at-Risk

Following a survey of Extension agents regarding needed and desired competencies to work with children-, youth-, and families- at-risk, an experiential staff development component was tested. A cross-discipline agent team worked with state staff to develop and conduct a community assessment of assets as well as needs, designed to teach identified competencies. Staff development and program planning outcomes are discussed from the agents' points of view. Implications for programs and system change are included.

Sherry C. Betts
Extension Specialist
The University of Arizona
Tucson, Arizona
Internet address: sbetts@ag.arizona.edu

Annette M. Firth
County Extension Agent
Cochise County Extension Office
Sierra Vista, Arizona
Internet address: afirth@ag.arizona.edu

Susan Watters
4-H Youth Development
Cochise County Extension Office
Willcox, Arizona
Internet address: swatters@ag.arizona.edu

Stuart Shepherd
Former Executive Director
4-H Youth Development Program
The University of Arizona
Tucson, Arizona

County and state Extension staff are encouraged to work across program areas on issues programming concerning youth at risk and plight of young children. This article presents a staff development and program planning technique promoting cross program involvement in the area of children, youth, families and community. State and county staff have contributed their own perspectives on their roles and involvement.

Competency Assessment

The Arizona team attending the 1992 national Summit III meeting called to implement the national Youth-at-Risk initiative decided to begin its work by conducting a survey of county agents to determine competencies needed to work with youth- and families -at-risk and what learning methods were preferred by county staff. Most agents identified seven competencies as priorities and indicated a clear preference for experiential learning. The competencies were combined into one experiential staff development program that was funded by the DeWitt Wallace Readers' Digest Strengthening Our Capacity to Care program. The competencies addressed include finding funding for new audiences, dealing with turf issues, integrating current and emerging programs, assessing audiences, integrating new audiences, initiating change, and evaluating.

Agents entered into an experiential learning process in their own communities. The process resulted in the development of programs and initiation of change that assessed audiences (old and new), integrated new audiences with current and emerging programs, clarified turf issues, pointed the way to new funding sources, and suggested evaluation strategies. This paper describes how the assessment of staff competencies led to the development and implementation of the program development process.

Program Development

In the staff development plan, the state youth-at-risk (YAR) coordinator/youth and family specialist and the executive director of the 4-H youth foundation worked with a county agent team, at their request, in a given community. The purpose was to complete a community assessment of the issues, needs, strengths, and resources concerning children, youth, and families through the active involvement of the county team and local citizens. Resource development finds its strength in building relationships with people who share a common vision and this process provided an opportunity for extension faculty and resource development staff to partner. Programs will be built and funded by forging new linkages, networks, and partnerships with individuals with a passion to make a difference in their community.

The YAR coordinator and foundation director work with the county agent team prior to approaching the community, spend two to three days in the community with the team, and help formulate the program plan based on the information gained through this process.

The county team selects the community, introduces themselves to key citizens, sets up the schedule and interview appointments, participates in the two-to-three day process, and commits to necessary follow-up and response to identified needs. They also commit to working in two adjacent counties with agents who are interested in forming teams and completing the same process. The idea is to learn by doing and by teaching while helping to disseminate this staff development/program planning process.

Dimock (1993) proposed a Systems Improvement Research (SIR) model that was adapted for use in Arizona. SIR is based on a collaborative approach to data collection, in this case a collaboration of state and county extension staff with community citizens and leaders. Eight assumptions regarding changing social systems are the basis of the SIR model:

  1. The community is the focus of change.
  2. People affected by change should be involved in making the change.
  3. Possibilities for change are increased if the group functions well.
  4. Power people in the community must support the change if it is to succeed.
  5. Change in one part of the community will produce strain and change in other parts.
  6. Previous interventions in the community establish a pattern of response to intervention.
  7. Resistance to change is normal and helpful in stabilizing new changes.
  8. Change happens more easily by reducing resistance than increasing force.

The first time this process was tried, all concerned learned a great deal--about the SIR process itself and needed revisions, in addition to information about assessing and working with new audiences, initiating change, funding for new audiences, dealing with turf issues, integrating current and emerging programs, and evaluation.

The county director, who also serves as community and economic development agent, was approached by the YAR coordinator and asked if he and his staff would be interested in participating in this community assessment process as a means to plan program and develop competence. He was interested, but wanted to involve his staff in planning and in selecting the community. Two agents with split appointments joined the team. The first serves as 4-H youth development and at that time, agriculture, agent and has a masters degree in range management. The second serves as 4-H youth development and home economics agent, with a masters in counseling. As a team, they were interested in the process and selected a community in which the current Extension youth and family program, while strong, served limited numbers with traditional programs. They felt they could fill more meaningful roles in the community, but needed additional information and in-roads. They also felt they could be successful in this community. They wanted to be successful in the first attempt at this process.

Agent Perspectives

In the words of the 4-H/agriculture agent: "We have a very successful traditional 4-H program in this community that reaches only a fraction of the youth. I hoped that through the community assessment we would learn more about the community and develop relationships that would help us reach a larger, more diverse youth audience. The real strength of the 4-H program lies in the relationships between the volunteers, both adults and teens, and the youth. We need to develop new project areas to meet the needs of today's youth. This process will help us gain insight into some new project areas and a program delivery that will be effective."

The 4-H/agriculture agent went on to comment, "The community assessment process is an excellent way to get to know community people better, understand their perspectives, and clarify what 4- H youth development is. Even those who thought they knew what 4-H was all about were surprised at the variety of offerings and resources. We spent two days, mostly with individual visits, and while these appointments take time, they are very valuable for building relationships. Throughout the discussions, various strengths, needs, and opportunities were mentioned consistently. Soon we were able to identify common community issues and see patterns. The main suggestion I have is to plan ample time to respond to needs and develop programs once the assessment is done. Take time to prioritize and adjust your commitments so it is not just another item added to an already full schedule. The assessment has personally helped me see the need to really prioritize my program areas to have the flexibility to respond to needs as they arise and to find new ways to reach other youth."

The 4-H/home economics agent had similar observations, but a different slant on the value of the process: "I have been in this county for nine years, but this close examination of one community has been invaluable. Our goal is to use this process as a model to look more closely at other communities in the county. We realize that communities change over a period of time and so do their needs and issues. To be effective and to empower families, we need to be able to update our understanding of a specific community and know the leaders. By going into the community to talk with government, business, and education leaders, and to other citizens, we have been able to break some barriers that we have faced in the past. There are many implications for programming that evolve from this model as it relates to the cultural diversity of the county and specifically to this community."

The county director/community development agent relates both benefits and new issues which have arisen as a result of this experience. The benefits include cross program planning and integration, but some turf issues remain to be resolved. The county Extension advisory board members have become much more interested in concerns related to children, youth, and families and have helped refocus the county Extension program priorities. As expected, the SIR process has not only produced change in the way Extension does business in this one community, but has also changed the way county and state Extension staff work together here and in other communities.

Conclusions and Implications

This community assessment of strengths, assets, concerns, resources, and needs has lead to the integration of 4-H youth development, home economics, agriculture and community and economic development programming with youth-at- risk programming, and plight of young children, in some communities. As a bonus, agents in all programs have found varying degrees of application to their principal work. Recently, every county committed to complete an assessment with this method, and the number of training teams has grown to five from the original one. Those agents who have completed the process are ready to work with their colleagues.

There are three primary areas of implications for Extension. First, the most apparent value of this process is in the dynamics which occur within the county Extension organization itself. Program area differences in audiences, techniques and subject matter are visible in our daily work, but the shared concerns and the value of our shared expertise become evident through the discussions with community citizens and Extension advisory board members. As staff work together toward the common goal of completing this process, the working relationships and communication improve.

Second, assumptions we make about how and with whom we work as Extension professionals need to be examined. Just because programs have a long history does not necessarily mean they are meeting the needs of the clientele. This process helps us challenge our own sets of beliefs and assumptions about the roles of Extension in the community. As the agent perspectives indicated, the new knowledge gained about a community where they had lived and worked for many years was invaluable. It also helped many people in the community dispel myths and misinformation they held about Extension.

Third, Dimock's Systems Improvement Research model can be a useful tool for Extension professionals' use in many areas. The eight principles listed earlier can be applied to any program area or effort to affect change in what we do or how and with whom we work.


Dimock, Hedley G., (1993). Intervention and Collaboration: Helping Organizations to Change. San Diego, CA: Pfeiffer