October 1994 // Volume 32 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA2

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Do Local Realities Clash with Federal Expectations?

KIDS' TEAM, a federally funded youth-at-risk grant, is used as a case study for examining differences in expectations of federal, state, and local level participants. A qualitative approach was used to analyze expectations at three levels. Results indicate that while the basic program philosophy and goals were similar at the federal and state levels, participants at the local level raised some questions regarding the vision of Cooperative Extension and its role in addressing youth-at-risk issues. Further emphasis must be placed on helping the public understand this role and how it impacts them as clientele.

Georgia L. Stevens
Extension Family Economics Policy Specialist
Family and Consumer Science
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Internet address: csed007@unlvm.unl.edu

Kathleen Ann Lodl
4-H & Youth Development Specialist
Cooperative Extension
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Internet address: fhyd009@unlvm.unl.edu

S. Kay Rockwell
Extension Program Evaluation Specialist
Cooperative Extension
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel
Educational Consultant

The national youth-at-risk initiative responded to the pervasive conditions in America which place children and their families at risk for not meeting their basic needs and not building the basic competencies necessary for successful life participation (Pittman, 1993). With the establishment of this initiative in 1988, the Extension Service-USDA made a commitment to develop and deliver programs for "at-risk" youth as a part of its educational mission within the Land Grant University System. To carry out this mission, a grant program to develop specific youth-at-risk programs at the local level was implemented.

A basic assumption was that expectations for these grants would be similar at the federal, state, and local levels. While everyone agreed that the goal of the monies was to improve the lives of young people, especially those at risk, there were different expectations at each of these levels on how to achieve this goal.

This article explores the different perceptions that federal, state, and local level participants held about the youth-at-risk grant funds. It highlights similarities and differences, and discusses implications for Cooperative Extension and future youth-at-risk programming. To investigate these federal, state, and local expectations, KIDS' TEAM, a federally funded youth-at-risk project, was used as a case study.

Current research shows there are several factors that contribute to youths taking part in behavior that places them at risk (Bogenschneider, Small & Riley, 1991). One method of effectively addressing the needs of youth is to develop local community coalitions that use an ecological approach, focusing on the family in the context of the community (Keith, 1993). With the implementation of KIDS' TEAM, it was hoped that communities would begin to use this ecological approach for addressing youth-at-risk issues.

The focus of KIDS' TEAM was to organize groups of children in Nebraska's largely rural Third Congressional District to plan and carry out safe activities when school was not in session. A KIDS' TEAM curriculum box was developed for suggestions on activities that develop lifetime skills. Facilitators were also trained to provide project leadership. The KIDS' TEAM curriculum was designed as a start-up project for local community groups to use in their effort to build an effective community youth coalition.


The research question to be addressed was "what are the differences in expectations at the federal, state, and local levels concerning youth-at-risk grant funding?" A qualitative approach using a set of open-ended questions for reviewing printed documents and conducting personal interviews was implemented.

At the federal level, data were obtained from the requests for proposals (RFP's) and federal project director memorandums. Data at the state level were obtained through the USDA project applications, progress reports, promotional flyers, preliminary evaluations, and personal interviews with state project directors.

At the local level, six telephone interviews were conducted with local project leaders at three sites. The interview protocol focused on background information of the respondent, expectations at the local level, project strengths and weaknesses, project concerns, and suggestions for project improvement. Data from the federal, state, and local levels were analyzed following Strauss and Corbin's (1990) procedures for open coding.


Several similarities and differences at each of the three levels emerged for each of the questions studied. The fundamental intent and philosophy at the federal level of youth-at-risk funding are to develop youths' potential and enable at-risk young people to become healthy, productive, and contributing adults. Specific goals focused on: (a) strengthening the ecological environment for youth; (b) increasing the decision-making skills of youth, thereby reducing the long-term costs to society; (c) developing community coalitions of youth and adults that build on partnerships among the public and private sectors; and (d) institutionalizing youth-at-risk programming to ensure local program continuation. Overall, participants at the federal level wanted to carry out this goal by delivering programs across the nation in the most efficient manner for the least amount of money.

The overall expectations at the state level mirrored those of the federal level. In addition, participants at the state level wanted to meet their state's goals and local clientele needs. The primary way they expected to accomplish federal expectations and empower communities to address the needs of youth-at-risk was through coalition building--the third goal identified at the federal level. At the state level, mechanisms were put into place to develop local coalitions that would plan, organize, and implement a school-age childcare group that used a curriculum designed for the project, the KIDS' TEAM box.

Locally, the highest priority was given to making "real" differences in the lives of individuals and their communities. School-age child care was seen as a major concern, and many initial program expectations were focused on activities surrounding the KIDS' TEAM curriculum box. Retrospectively, one local-level respondent said the program was a "two-prong effort." The first issue was school-age child care. Once this was addressed, the group could then move on to other youth issues. Project participants at the local level saw expectations change as coalitions functioned over a year's time. After strategies were in place to address school-age childcare, the local coalition members began to recognize and address other youth-related concerns. Therefore, they "backed" into the federal and state expectations after they felt success with their initial project focus.


The findings show the basic philosophy and goals for the program at the federal and state levels were similar. While the federal expectations were global, the state level became more specific and focused on state needs.

At the local level, more differences in expectations for the project occurred. Primary goals at the federal and state levels focused on developing community coalitions to address youth issues. The primary goal at the local level focused on developing a school-age child care activity. State level program designers wanted the KIDS' TEAM effort to be the "first step" in a coalition building process that would ensure a better local environment for youth. However, many community members saw the situation in reverse. They saw coalition building as the final step in developing a school-age child care program. Although many local groups still are very involved with the school-age child care activities, they began to see the coalition as a means to address other youth needs after experiencing success with one project.

The most noteworthy outcome was the willingness of community organizations and traditional Extension clientele to more fully embrace and understand the KIDS' TEAM effort as a part of the role and mission of Cooperative Extension's youth-at-risk effort. The role of Extension was questioned when the Department of Social Services and Head Start in one community reacted with, "I didn't know the Extension Service did that." Likewise, Extension Board members and 4-H Leaders asked, "Do we do that?" and, "Why do we do that?" Coalition members spent a great deal of time explaining why Cooperative Extension is involved in coalition building and why it was reaching out beyond traditional 4-H youth activities to reach at-risk youth. It is often assumed that clientele understand the role and importance of priority initiative programming. As indicated by the interviews, this is not always the case.

Though state statistics mirror national figures on several risk-related behaviors, it was difficult for some community leaders to accept the fact that problems existed. While many communities were strongly supportive of the goals of the program, a few did not see themselves as having youth "at risk." In one community, school board members felt that youth do have problems, but this was not indicative of their community because they perceived that youths were home with parents.


By comparing the expectations of a youth-at-risk project at the federal, state, and local levels, several important elements emerged. The local level Extension educators need to actively redirect Extension's public image by focusing on priority issues that address local needs; raise public awareness as to the severity of youth-at-risk issues by collecting and publicizing local data; and challenge themselves to implement programs that target youth-at-risk and traditional clientele.

To support local Extension educators, state project directors need to empower them to create a climate in which this change can occur. Federal administrators must acknowledge the amount of time it takes to nurture the development of youth-at-risk programs and community coalitions. They can also help develop strategies on a short- and long-term basis.


The purpose of this paper was to examine expectations for youth-at-risk funding. In doing so, it was discovered that while the process at each level might be different, expectations are similar. The clash is the discrepancy that exists between the vision of Cooperative Extension regarding youth-at-risk programming and the understanding of the general public as to this mission. The true challenge for Cooperative Extension is to help the public understand this mission and how it impacts them as clientele. It is only by developing this kind of understanding that our organization can effectively implement programming that will empower communities to successfully address the needs of youth-at-risk.


Bogenschneider, K., Small, S., & Riley, D. (1991). An ecological risk-focused approach for addressing youth-at-risk. Paper presented at the National Extension Youth-at-Risk Summit, Chevy Chase, MD.

Keith, J. (1993). Building and maintaining community coalitions on behalf of children, youth and families (Report No. 529). East Lansing: Michigan State University Agricultural Experiment Station.

Pittman, K. (1993). Philosophy: Children, youth and families at risk. Extension Plight of Young Children & Youth at Risk National Initiatives. Youth At Risk Site Conference, Washington, DC.

Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of qualitative research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.