June 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA4

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Working with High-Risk Youth: A Collaborative Approach

The results of a qualitative investigation into factors contributing to a highly effective collaborative youth-at-risk program between Nevada Cooperative Extension and several rural schools are presented. Responses and findings were grouped into six general areas: (a) local support provided by Cooperative Extension, (b) targeting a specific population of need, (c) community partners in the program, (d) low budgetary impact of the program, (e) program flexibility, and (f) giving schools program ownership. Methodology is discussed as well as implications for the findings. The research was conducted to help Cooperative Extension professionals that work with local schools.

Marilyn Smith
Area Youth Development Specialist
Nevada Cooperative Extension
Elko, Nevada
Internet address: msmith@fs.scs.unr.edu

Dr. George C. Hill
State Extension Specialist
Educational Leadership
University of Nevada, Reno
Internet address: gchill@scs.unr.edu

Dr. Myrna Matranga
College of Education
Educational Leadership
University of Nevada, Reno
Internet address: matranga@equinox.scs.unr.edu

Alice Good
Extension Communications Specialist
Office of Communications
University of Nevada, Reno
Internet address: gooda@fs.scs.unr.edu

Public schools are centers of youth activity for many rural communities. As such, they represent an ideal setting for collaborative youth-at-risk programming. In an effort to better understand the dynamics of collaborative youth-at-risk programming in schools, factors contributing to the successful development of these types of programs in rural Nevada schools were examined. A qualitative, multicase study approach was used in which rural elementary school principals were interviewed about conditions and factors that contributed to successful youth programs developed with Cooperative Extension. This article presents a brief description of literature and a summary of the study data. Both provide valuable insight into furthering school-Cooperative Extension collaborative efforts.

Comments from the Literature


While the definition for collaboration remains the same in both rural and urban communities, the special needs of rural schools make the need for collaborative programs even more acute (Hale, 1991). Hale (1991) indicates rural school districts are: (a) small and remote, (b) isolated and lack political power, and (c) short on resources. Hale also suggests that a larger proportion of rural children grow up in economically poor communities than do urban children. Many would like to believe that children in rural communities are somehow protected from today's problems. However, the following description fits both urban and rural schools. Guthrie, Scott, Guthrie, and Aronson (1993) state:

     American schools in the 90's are ill-equipped to provide
     services and assistance to meet the needs of students.  The
     stresses of poverty, hunger, family violence and the
     powerful influences of gangs or drugs in the community, are
     taking a terrible toll on children.  Changes in the kinds of
     needs children bring to school have placed additional
     burdens on teachers and other school staff--burdens they are
     unable to bear alone. (p. 5)

The Community Collaboration Manual (1991) lists seven elements to effective collaboration: (a) a shared vision, (b) skilled leadership, (c) process orientation, (d) cultural diversity, (e) a membership-driven agenda, (f) multiple sectors, and (g) accountability. All these factors help develop lasting efforts. Cohen (1991) defines collaboratives as "multilateral efforts that unite organizations and people to achieve common goals that could not be accomplished by any single organization" (pp. 6-17).

Other school literature suggests that in working with schools, time must be allowed for institutionalization to occur. Researchers suggest a holistic systemic approach to cooperation and collaboration that includes strong school administrative support and the presence of at least one highly motivated change agent (Fullan, 1992).

Study Design

A qualitative multicase study design was selected for this study because:

  1. the complexity of the issues necessitated an open dialogue to better understand the factors which made the program successful;

  2. the collection of affective data does not lend itself to the multiple-choice format of quantitative analysis;

  3. there is a lack of baseline information on the central concepts of this study; and

  4. there were a small number of schools (n = 10) involved, making for a better qualitative than quantitative study.

Both Merriam (1988) and Yin (1989) consider qualitative analysis appropriate in the field of education. Merriam states that case study research is an "ideal design for understanding and interpreting observations of educational phenomena" (p. 2). While the use of qualitative research has been limited in the field of education, it has been used in a number of related social science fields to investigate issues to better understand complex social phenomena (Yin, 1989). This program involved the resource and cultures of two social organizations making the choice of qualitative methodology the most appropriate to understand the real dynamics behind the programs' success.

Qualitative Methodology

In an effort to better understand the dynamics within a school that make it receptive to external involvement, an interview was conducted with each of the ten school principals that had collaborated on a successful youth at-risk program with Nevada Cooperative Extension for at least one year. In preparation for the interviews, an initial review of literature on school change, culture, and qualitative methodology was completed. A preliminary list of nine survey questions was prepared by the authors and a panel of experts reviewed the questions prior to the interviews. The questions were preceded by an opening paragraph explaining the purpose of the interview. The questions were kept short and to the point; for example, "How important was the need to have a program for youth-at-risk at your school?" To determine if our questioning strategies were appropriate, three trial interviews were conducted. They were also reviewed by the panel of experts. The open-ended survey instrument was modified to include the experts' suggestions. At that point the formal interviews were conducted with each principal.

The study design included efforts to insure reliability and validity. Because construct validity is usually the most problematic area in qualitative analysis, a "chain of evidence" was used to increase it (Yin, 1989, p. 42). In this process, each of the principal interviews was tape recorded. The tapes were transcribed and the transcriptions were color coded to distinguish between schools and between questions. The authors then reviewed the transcripts for accuracy. After making sure that the transcripts were accurate, the authors began to read and re-read the transcripts looking for similarities in answers that would help establish that "chain of evidence." To insure reliability, external readers reviewed the transcripts to verify the conclusions drawn by the chain of evidence discovered by the authors.

The data analysis included:

  1. data reduction, which is a continuous process of organizing the data to make and verify conclusions;

  2. data display, which involves summarizing data; and

  3. conclusion drawing/verification, the process where conclusions are made and verified (Miles & Huberman, 1984).

The qualitative analysis provided rich descriptions and quotations gathered in the interviews.


The school principals enumerated six major elements they felt made a difference in building a collaboration to target youth-at-risk: (a) local support provided by Cooperative Extension; (b) targeting of elementary students in prevention programs; (c) community partners in the program; (d) low impact on the school budget; (e) flexibility (i.e., allowing each school to fit the program to its own needs); and (f) giving schools program ownership.

Local Support

School principals revealed there are many opportunities for teacher training in youth-at-risk programs. However, there is limited local support when teachers return to school to initiate the program. If they have a question or problem, there is no source to answer them. Principals acknowledged that this program was developed locally by schools, Cooperative Extension and other educators from the land-grant university. As problems or questions arose, the collaborative group resolved them. "You didn't just come in and say, 'Here's a manual, we'd like you guys to do this' and then drop it in our laps," said one principal.

The program development model included an impact evaluation designed with Cooperative Extension providing technical support. "We want to see the results of the time and energy we put forth and how it has affected the students," related a principal. Other principals told us the documented results are what encourages teachers to continue volunteering their time for the program. Quantitative results based on the Nowicki-Strickland Locus of Control and observations by parents, teachers and the youth are available from the authors on request (Smith, Hill, D'Andrea & Matranga, 1995).

Targeting High-Risk Youth

Principals indicated a high need for a prevention program for high-risk elementary students. This particular isolated, rural area was experiencing the same youth problems as most urban areas. However, the rural schools did not have the programs or resources to deal with the problems. "One counselor for 752 kids doesn't have time to reach all of these kids," summed up one principal. Other schools had no counselor or programs to assist high-risk youth.

Community Partners

While the main collaborators were Cooperative Extension and local schools, other community groups joined in to expand the program's contact hours. 4-H club members, business people and parents of the high-risk youth provided young people with an opportunity to do a community service project. The high-risk students at each school learned to identify community needs by attending a one-day training session. Under the guidance of the community collaborators, youth put their plans to work. Their projects spanned tree planting to development of a movie theater.

Through training sessions, parents of the high-risk youth learned to reinforce life skills at home. Parents said they learned important skills and felt more capable of helping their children be successful in school. Principals indicated this was one of a few programs that include community and parent components, thus encouraging a long-term influence on the children.

School Budget

The collaborative nature of the program created a low impact on the school budget. Collaborators shared costs so the financial burden was not on any one agency. "There are a lot of neat programs out in the world and we get pamphlets and mailings on all kinds of them," related one principal. He continued, "Programs may be aimed at substance abuse of one kind or another, ...but most of them are very narrow. This is a cooperative program, and that's why it has worked, because there are so many entities involved and they are kept informed. This program has brought to life the true meaning of Cooperative Extension."

School Ownership

The collaboration was flexible and allowed each school to adapt the program to meet its needs. Some schools added leadership councils so the high-risk students had additional opportunities. Other schools added career components to encourage high-risk youth to develop goals toward future education. Many Cooperative Extension professionals have asked us, "How did you get into the schools?" The answer is not easy, but ownership is a key.


This study was conducted to assist Cooperative Extension professionals in working with local schools. The goal was to suggest strategies that, if used, would enhance the likelihood of success when collaborating with public schools. The methodology provided important insights because of the qualitative approach taken in this study. Hopefully, the results will contribute to our understanding of the school context and add to the knowledge base. Extension professionals are encouraged to consider the six elements related to successful collaboration discovered through this study. It is hoped that by increasing the success of collaborative endeavors, we will provide more help to kids and families who need us.


Cohen, D. L. (1991, January). Barriers of poverty and bureaucracy pose challenges to service agencies, families. Education Week, p. 18.

The Community Collaboration Manual. (1991). Washington, DC: National Assembly of National Voluntary Health and Social Welfare Organizations, National Collaboration for Youth.

Fullan, M. (1992, October). Getting reform right. Paper presented at Nevada Project Lead Conference, Reno, Nevada.

Guthrie, L. F., Scott, B. L., Guthrie, G. P., & Aronson, J. Z. (1993). Portraits of interagency collaboration. (Special Report Prepared for U.S. Department of Education). San Francisco: Far West Laboratory.

Hale, S. (1991). School-community collaboration in a rural setting: Sources and profiles (Knowledge Brief #8). San Francisco: Far West Laboratory.

Merriam, S. B. (1988). Case study research in education: A qualitative approach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Miles, M. B., & Huberman, A. M. (1984). Qualitative data analysis: A sourcebook of new methods. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Smith, M., Hill, G., D'Andrea, L., & Matranga, M. (1995). A community based program for rural youth at-risk. The Rural Educator, (17)2.

Yin, R. K. (1989). Case study research: Design and methods. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.