April 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA1

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Everybody Wins: Involving Youth in Community Needs Assessment

This article presents a strategy for integrating community service learning with community development. It builds upon two methods in rural development: needs assessment and incorporating public schools in the development process. The strategy provides a way to conduct a valid needs assessment using survey research methods, while keeping costs low and involvement of local people high. It also provides an opportunity for students to have classroom and experiential learning on community development and needs assessment. This strategy has been tested in Florida and Kentucky.

Glenn D. Israel
Associate Professor
Agricultural Education and Communication
University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida
Internet address: reports@gnv.ifas.ufl.edu

Thomas W. Ilvento
Associate Extension Professor
Rural Sociology
University of Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky

     "If we could just, like, get a group together... maybe
     we could get more done."
                                    -Student, Immokalee, Florida

Few communities build a foundation for their young people to develop into involved citizens. Such a foundation would foster leadership skills and positive relationships between people, young and old. Involving young people in community affairs can forge new bonds between students, teachers, and citizens, while helping to solve community problems. Through community involvement, youth can increase their understanding of and commitment to their community, and can become empowered to work toward solving local problems. Youth can be an important part of community efforts to respond to longstanding problems and emerging needs.

A strategy for integrating community service learning with community development is presented in this article. The strategy builds upon two methods of rural development: conducting a needs assessment survey, and incorporating public schools in the development process. Further, this strategy produces a valid needs assessment survey which keeps costs low and involvement of local people high. It also gives students an opportunity to have classroom and experiential learning about community development and needs assessment and helps students to get involved in their community while providing a valuable service. In rural communities where needs assessment, particularly statistical surveys, can be expensive and complicated, this approach can be effective. This model can also build a strong school and community partnership. This strategy has been tested in Kentucky and Florida and results of the Florida experience are highlighted below.

Two Approaches to Development

Needs Assessment

Needs assessment has long been an important community development tool, but it is often expensive to undertake. Needs assessment can identify unmet needs in the community, provide evidence of support for policy options, and increase public involvement in policy making.

If done well, needs assessment is both a process and a method. As a process, it can build leadership, group cohesion, and a sense of local involvement in the community. Some types of needs assessment, such as surveys and focus groups, provide participants a vehicle for expressing their opinions on community issues. As a method, needs assessment is a tool that helps a community plan for and implement strategies in areas as diverse as crime watch programs, business expansion efforts, and youth recreation.

The survey is one of the more popular approaches to needs assessment. While surveys can provide excellent information for needs assessment, surveys need expertise, time, and resources to be accurate and relevant. A sample of 500 residents could cost $10,000 from a reputable survey company or university survey center--a cost beyond the reach of a small community or a nonprofit community group.

What's more, if a community did have the resources to contract for a survey, residents may be involved only superficially in the project. Experience shows that local groups must be committed to using the survey, or else the results are relegated to sit on a shelf in someone's office. When local people conduct a survey, they become committed to using the results.

Many community groups lack the money to hire professional survey centers to conduct a survey or a consultant to provide technical support. However, these community groups could benefit from the information of a survey. The problem becomes one of trying to generate a local community survey that is (a) useful and relevant, (b) scientifically valid, and (c) affordable. Many locally-initiated attempts in surveys have fallen short on one or more of these criteria.

Community Service Learning

Many researchers and policy makers have suggested that public schools, particularly rural schools, need to be more involved in community affairs in general, and in community development activities in particular. They argue that public schools are a valuable community resource that, in terms of development activities, have been largely untapped. Schools are often the major employer in rural areas, with a large number of college graduates who have specific skills of communication, leadership, mathematics, and social studies. Further, the school facilities can house public meetings and work areas during evening and summer hours. Finally, development projects involving public schools provide excellent educational opportunities for students. Effective leadership and citizenship requires that people understand their community and its place in the larger society (Hobbs, 1989). Thus, community service learning is one way to provide students with knowledge and experiences that are fundamental to citizenship.

Service learning works to increase the relevance of classroom activities through "learning by doing" (Silcox, 1991). Much like practicums, on-the-job training, and internships, community service learning seeks to provide an educational experience that is tied to the "real world." Students can learn more about their community and their role as citizens through service projects. Service learning projects have included school based businesses, class projects to improve the community, research projects on issues or historical perspectives, and school curriculums sensitive to community needs.

Many community service projects generally result in individual, voluntary efforts with local service agencies. However, they do not build effective community leadership because they lack a framework to integrate this service into aspects of community, community development, and local policy making. They also lack group decision-making, problem solving, and collaboration, leaving the experiences as isolated, individual actions (Boyte, 1991). Those advocating community service programs argue that projects should increase teamwork among students, teachers, and community members (Silcox, 1991); foster the ability to contribute in a democratic society (McPherson, 1991); and empower students (Boyte, 1991). To do this relationships between youth and adults must shift from youth being passive recipients to being active members of a team which decides on and carries out programs (Kurth-Schai, 1988).

The Marriage of Needs Assessment and Service Learning

A model is suggested that integrates community service learning with a community needs assessment project, each building upon the other. By involving the local schools in the survey, some of the problems of conducting a legitimate needs assessment can be addressed. The high school (and its students) offer labor, expertise in computers (and possibly statistics), potential respondents (in the case of a student survey), and a location to conduct the survey.

At the same time, student involvement in a community needs assessment project can provide an opportunity for students to actively participate in a community-based project while learning about community development and strategies of community needs assessment. Students can play key roles in making decisions about how the project is designed, implemented, and utilized while working with community leaders and groups. The key to success in terms of building leadership and collaboration skills is to structure the needs assessment so that:

  1. Students are active participants.

  2. Partnerships with other community groups and agencies are created.

  3. Materials are available for students to learn about community development and needs assessment strategies.

  4. Students are provided ways to get involved in implementing findings after the needs assessment has been completed.

The challenge is one of addressing most of the issues of scientific rigor for the needs assessment while maximizing involvement, participation, and implementation of students and other local groups.

Implementing the Needs Assessment: A Florida Example

A needs assessment project in Immokalee, Florida, was initiated by a small group of local leaders. They wanted to obtain information from residents before committing their limited resources to any specific project. The County Extension Director consulted with a state Extension specialist and began a process of developing a partnership among local leaders, the high school, Extension, and other organizations needed to support the project. The focus of the partnership was two-fold: to generate information for community leaders' decision-making and to supply high school students with enhanced educational experiences. Several local leaders played key roles in obtaining the interest and cooperation of high school administrators and, later, in supporting the students' efforts. A local telephone company donated 10 phones to facilitate the interviews.

After meeting with the County Extension Director and high school principal in late 1991, a social studies teacher decided to have two classes of seniors and juniors participate in the project. A few students from outside these classes volunteered. Nearly 60 students participated.

The students participated in a series of activities, including a question writing and questionnaire design workshop, which were created to provide them with the chance to make significant contributions. The questions written by the students were combined with those of community leaders in developing the survey. Students also developed materials to promote citizen participation for the survey, including the slogan, "Don't Hang Up On Immokalee," for use in the media. The students participated in interviewer training sessions and conducted interviews. A total of 434 interviews were completed. Students completed 287 interviews and Extension program assistants completed the remaining 147 interviews. Adult supervisors monitored the calling and helped students learn to deal with problem cases. During scheduled classes, students discussed the survey to better understand the process. One student spent over 24 hours creating a computer data set from the completed surveys.

Despite the "well-laid" plans, there were problems. But the students persevered and overcame these difficulties, thereby learning an important "real life" lesson. To help maintain morale, a member of the leadership group sponsored a pizza party for the students after they completed half of the interviews. In addition, a recognition program was held at the completion of the interviewing phase.

After the interviews were completed and most of the students graduated, six attended a meeting and helped to plan presentations for various civic and governmental organizations (an Extension specialist conducted the data analysis for use in the presentations). Subsequently, three students, along with the Extension Director and teacher, conducted 14 presentations for a number of community organizations.

Experiences Gained by Students

Information was collected using pre-program and follow-up focus groups comprised of student participants, an adult volunteer focus group, and records collected during the project.

Learning About Needs Assessment

Many students indicated they better understood the needs assessment process: "I learned that it took a lot of people to complete the survey because there are people involved in different levels and stuff." While making a total of 3,149 dialings, most developed skill in interviewing and learned to handle a variety of situations, including refusals: "When you're talking to them at first you get nervous, but after a while you get comfortable." By completing interviews, students felt a sense of achievement: "Felt like you did something."

Learning About Their Community

Most students were already aware of many of the problems facing their community prior to the project. But by interviewing residents, some students appeared to have developed a broader view of local problems: "We see things differently now... Because by asking, I'm thinking more as I ask these surveys."

Aspirations for Future Involvement

During the pre-program focus groups, some students offered only general comments about whether they would get involved in community affairs. Subsequently, few students at the follow-up focus groups expressed aspirations for continuing their involvement in community affairs after graduation. Of those who did, the needs assessment project was viewed as a springboard for that participation:

"Well, I'm more likely to be involved because here I've been involved in this already and I want to see it keep moving forward."

"I think I'm more likely 'cause I really liked it [the project]."

How the Survey Helped the Community

The survey information was used in several ways:

  1. The YMCA used information about recreational needs to develop a priority program for middle school youth. One student involved in the project worked on the task force for this program.

  2. The local Chamber of Commerce used information to obtain assistance from the regional planning council and Florida Department of Commerce to support their economic development activities.

  3. Of 131 individuals who were nominated as community leaders during the survey, 44 attended a planning meeting. Using the survey, these leaders selected two priority issues as the focus for their efforts.


Linking community service learning with community development can effectively meet the needs of some rural communities. The successful implementation of the community needs assessment project illustrates that students can make significant contributions to the development of their community while at the same time gaining valuable experience. The partnership of high school students and teachers, community leaders, and the Cooperative Extension Service also was an important part in successfully conducting the community needs assessment survey. The project in Florida showed that school- based community needs assessments can maintain "reasonable rigor" while keeping costs low and involving local leaders and students.

Experience shows that projects like this can help youth develop a better understanding of their community. This can increase students' confidence that they can contribute to their community's efforts to solve local problems. For those considering similar projects, they need to keep in mind that these should not be viewed as meeting all the necessary conditions for creating involved citizens, but they are one step in the process.

A by-product of the project was an increased appreciation among some local leaders of what young people can do to help their community. As one teacher observed, "Certain power people are involved and also saw that the kids could take an active role too... I think the power group maybe beginning to look at the kids in the community differently because they saw that maybe they aren't the only ones who have to solve all the problems and all by themselves." If leaders are going to build more sustained community development, they must take advantage of the opportunity to harness the energy and enthusiasm of youth.


Boyte, H. C. (1991). Community service and civic education. Phi Delta Kappan, 72(10), 765-767.

Hobbs, D. (1989). Education reform and rural economic health: Policy implications. Paper distributed by the Policy and Planning Center, Appalachian Education Laboratory, Charleston, West Virginia.

Kurth-Schai, R. (1988). The role of youth in society: A reconceptualization. The Education Forum, 52(2), 113-132.

McPherson, K. (1991). Project service leadership: School service projects in Washington state. Phi Delta Kappan, 72(10), 750-753.

Silcox, H. (1991). Abraham Lincoln high school: Community service in action. Phi Delta Kappan, 72(10), 758-759.