February 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 1 // Research in Brief // 1RIB2

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Youth in Rural Community Development: High School Survey Researchers in Immokalee, Florida

A survey of 209 businesses of Immokalee, Florida was undertaken by 51 students in an effort to increase constructive youth involvement in the community. In view of the recommendations of local leaders and published information, the project involved eight principal and sequential activities: creating an Immokalee business directory; developing a survey; learning elementary statistics; learning and practicing survey techniques; understanding and doing public relations and promotions; making and keeping interview/survey appointments with businesses; presenting results; and conducting pre- and post-test evaluation of student participants. Benefits of the study accrue to the business sector, the schools, the students, and the community at large. The project is reviewed focusing on the role of the students.

Andrew Seidl
Extension Economist/Assistant Professor
Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics
Colorado State University
Ft. Collins, Colorado
Internet address: aseidl@ceres.agsci.colostate.edu

David Mulkey
Department of Food and Resource Economics
University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida

Denise Blanton
Director, Collier County Extension
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
University of Florida
Naples, Florida


A survey of the retail sector of Immokalee, Florida was used as a vehicle to increase constructive youth involvement in the community. In this article, two of the project objectives are emphasized: (a) providing high school students with a positive educational experience in their community; and (b) illustrating to local leaders the potential of young people as untapped resources for the community.

This project takes the philosophical view that involving young people in community development improves the chances that they will be seen as valuable to the community and to themselves.

Youth in Community Development

Motivations for involving youth in community development projects stem from a belief that communities often suffer from a lack of committed, involved, and knowledgeable leadership. Rural communities are particularly challenged to identify local leadership. Although a community's young people may be the most obvious group from which to recruit future leaders, few communities create an environment for youth to develop into leaders (Israel & Coleman, 1994). "The youth of a community are both potential actors and a resource, and to omit members of this group from making contributions to community affairs on the basis of their age unnecessarily limits a community's capacity to solve local problems" (Israel & Ilvento undated, p 5-6).

Citizen participation, leadership skills, a substantial information base, and the capacity of local people to solve local problems are characteristics of successful communities (Garkovich, 1989; Wilkinson, 1991). School-based community development projects can meet the educational objectives of the school, the information needs of the community, and lay the foundation for developing involved and affective citizens (Higbee, 1990; Nathan & Kielsmeier, 1991; Whisman, 1989).

Students can be trained as survey researchers to provide valuable, low cost information to needy rural communities (Ilvento & Mauer, 1991). Reasons for involving youth in community projects include: (a) increasing young people's understanding of their community, (b) developing their sense of empowerment, (c) encouraging their future participation in community affairs, (d) enhancing school-community relations, and (e) helping community leaders and citizens address local needs by recognizing and guiding youthful enthusiasm and energy (Israel & Ilvento, 1992).

Student participant benefits to community development projects are enhanced when opportunities for their meaningful contribution are provided at all stages of the project. By increasing student participation in decision-making, the traditional relationships between adults and youth shift from youth being recipients of directions to adults and youth working together as active members of a team (Kurth-Schai 1988). Adults must view youth as a resource for this process to be carried out affectivity.

The characteristics of successfully involving youth in community development projects include:

commitment of a project coordinator,
active community partnership,
support from school administrators and teachers including the use of school facilities,
the enthusiastic involvement of students,
activities to learn about community development,
exercises so that students understand the implications of their efforts,
adequate material resources (for example, a phone bank, computers),
technical support (such as sampling, statistics, survey design, analysis),
celebration of accomplishments,
use of the information gathered (for example, presentation of results, future community initiatives), and
student involvement in actions taken as a result of the project (Israel & Ilvento, 1994).

This project attempted to incorporate these insights to involve Immokalee High School students in a community development project. Based upon discussions with community leaders, it was decided to carry out a needs and assets survey of the retail business sector of Immokalee. Student involvement and education were the focus of the project. Students were trained in survey research techniques and then carried out a retail business survey in their community. Details of the project follow.

Immokalee, Florida

Immokalee, which means "my home" in the Seminole Indian language, is an unincorporated community of about 17,000 permanent residents located northwest of the Florida Everglades. Immokalee is the center of agricultural production for Collier County. The local economy is dependent upon the citrus, vegetable, and cattle industries.

Immokalee's population nearly doubles during the fall and spring harvest seasons when farm laborers, produce brokers, and buyers move into the community. About 25 vegetable packing houses and processing plants serve the area. Close to 50% of Immokalee's residents are employed in agriculture.

The median age of Immokalee residents is 24.1 years compared to 40.7 years for Collier County as a whole. Immokalee's median reported income is $15,170 compared to more than $34,000 county-wide. Nearly 50% of Immokalee residents live below the federal poverty level, increasing to 66% during the harvest season. The local unemployment rate is consistently near 20% and underemployment is very common. About 66% of Immokalee residents are classified as Hispanic, 18% Black and 15% White. About half of the Black population is thought to be of Haitian origin. More than half of the population speaks little English and one-third of the population is considered "linguistically isolated" (Bureau of Economic and Business Research, 1992).

High School Students Implement a Community Development Project

Student Participants

Two Immokalee High School advanced social studies classes were involved in this project. Participation was mandatory and both in-class and out-of-class time commitments were involved. The group of 51 students included a freshman, a sophomore, 18 juniors and 31 seniors. Approximately 40% of the students were women. The students ranged from age 15 to 20 years (mean = 17.5, mode = 18, n = 29). Three students were married, one was divorced, and seven had children. African-American, Haitian and white students made up approximately equal proportions of half of the participants. Hispanics made up the other half.

About 43% of the students indicated that they intended to attend a college or university, 12% planned to obtain other training (for example, vo-tech), and 24% planned to pursue a career in the military. About 20% of the students intended to live in Immokalee five years in the future, 60% elsewhere in Florida, and 20% elsewhere in the United States.

The information reported above was derived from a hand count, orally administered survey in each of the two classes. The survey process was used as an educational exercise to illustrate the use of surveys and of common non parametric statistical measures as a part of the training for the project.

Project Activities

Based upon the recommendations from literature, discussions with community leaders, and the perceived needs of the students, this project was divided into eight sequential activities:

  • creating an Immokalee business directory,
  • developing a survey,
  • learning elementary statistics,
  • learning and practicing survey techniques,
  • understanding and doing public relations and promotions,
  • making and keeping interview/survey appointments with businesses;
  • presenting results, and
  • conducting pre- and post-test evaluation of student participants.

Immokalee Business Directory

The business directory was a necessary starting point for determining the size and characteristics of the potential study population. The directory provided the following information:

  • the names of all retail businesses within Immokalee,.
  • the location of the business,
  • the name of the owner/manager,
  • a method to contact the business(for example, telephone number), and
  • a description or categorization of the business type (that is, SIC code).

Students were familiarized with spreadsheet software to record and sort the information from the local operational licenses. They gained an understanding of: (a) the number and types of local businesses, (b) the difficulties of defining the boundaries of an unincorporated community for research purposes, and (c) the types of public information available about local businesses.

Information was collected on 440 locally-issued operational licenses. From them, 209 retail businesses were identified for inclusion in the project. The reduction was due to a number of factors including establishments requiring more than one license (such as, restaurant and bar), micro-enterprises (for example, home sewing services, home-based catering services), or inappropriate businesses (such as, taverns) because of the students' ages.

Survey Development

As a starting point, a rough business needs and assets assessment survey was crafted based upon published accounts from Florida, Iowa, New Jersey, Ohio, and Oklahoma. This survey was customized to fit local needs through three iterations with focus groups: students, local business leaders, and county level government personnel.

Each focus group was shown a film developed by Minnesota Cooperative Extension on their large scale Business Retention and Expansion (BR&E) program. The project was presented as a model BR&E effort; a "by-the-book" effort with substantial financial support, person-power, expertise, skill and experience. Discussion surrounded how 51 high school students and a couple of adults might adapt the ambitious Minnesota project to fit into budgetary and personnel constraints and still provide meaningful information to the community. The focus group process served a number of purposes by (a) encouraging student and local business leader "ownership" and "buy-in", (b) providing interviewing practice, (c) providing an idea of survey flow and length, (d) pointing to any vocabulary, language difficulties or biases; (e) customizing survey to reflect specific community and student needs, and (f) providing project promotion and validation in the community.

Adult focus groups brought community members into the project. Through participation, residents learned project objectives and potential benefits to the business community. In a small community, getting the business community to buy-in is almost as important as nurturing student enthusiasm and skill to the usefulness of the project.

Essential Statistical Tools

Students were taught statistical tools and vocabulary to helped them understand the needs and results of the survey. They also found they were better able to understand the sports or business page in the local newspaper. Class time was dedicated to learning about measures of central tendency, frequency distributions, populations and samples, random, and other sampling techniques. Students gained an appreciation of the importance of their earlier meticulous coding of information to these concepts. Students gained practical insight into the use of statistical methods in research design. They gained understanding of the trade-offs between breadth and depth encountered by researchers.

Survey Techniques

Students were drilled extensively in the "how to" and "how not to" do a face-to-face interview. This training was conducted in large focus groups and brain storming sessions. The class discussed professional behavior, assurance of confidentiality, avoiding leading questions, noting additional comments, and recording and verifying data, among other topics.

During a role-playing session, each student had an opportunity to act as interviewer, interviewee, recorder of qualitative responses, and evaluator of the process. Students were divided into 17 teams of three persons. Each student had a chance in each role. Analogies to job interviews proved useful for the students. Practice time proved invaluable to the refinement of the final wording of the survey, in clarifying concepts, instilling confidence, and in smoothing some of the rough edges of the survey and the interviewers.

Project Public Relations and Promotion

Several activities promoted the project to local businesses and the broader community. It was anticipated that promotional efforts would increase community discussion of the project, allow students to realize project importance, increase the rate of return on the surveys, and enhance the reputation of the school system. These efforts described the activities of the study, its motivations, objectives, and potential contributions (products and uses) in Immokalee. Several media were employed including: (a) a letter sent to each business (designed by the students based on a model) announcing the project, (b) videotapes and photographs of several teams in action, (c) promotional and informational articles in the local newspaper, and (d) publicity spots on an informational public television station.

In addition, each of the 209 businesses was mailed a letter (again designed by the students based on a model) notifying them that a student would be calling to make an interview appointment. Finally, a thank you letter was sent to participants indicating how the study results could be obtained.

Making and Keeping Interview Appointments

The 17 groups were given a list of businesses to interview. A local cellular phone company provided a phone bank for making interview appointments. Students used a script to introduce themselves, the project, and to request an interview. The script was designed by the students using a model.

Each day the interview schedule was reviewed, completed surveys were collected, any problems or comments were discussed, and additional interviews were made or assigned as necessary. This process allowed the trainers to monitor the progress of the project. The process also identified top performing groups to be recognized with immediate positive feedback, and provided easy identification of those groups requiring additional encouragement(for example, curiously, several groups had all 15 businesses they were to interview "out of business").

Presenting Results

A final report was prepared, distributed, and presented by students in a number of forums around the community. Participating students were recognized in a school assembly. At the end of the project, a pizza party was held as a celebration of the students' accomplishments.

Business community needs identified by the project in the report included (a) offering Spanish and Creole classes through the chamber of commerce, (b) investigating an "adopt a block" downtown beautification project, and (c) exploring the feasibility of public transportation alternatives.

Partial Project Evaluation

Pre- and post-tests were employed as a partial evaluation of the value of the project to the students. Forty-six of 51 student participants were pre-tested before any training activities, but after the first description of the project. All 51 students participated in the post-test. The test was administered after the completion of the interviews, but before the final reporting and presentation of the project due to time constraints.

The test was designed in four sections to evaluate local knowledge, level of skill and understanding in basic research methods, sense of community, and sense of self. Students were told that they would not be graded, but that only accurate responses would allow proper evaluation of the project.

Forty-four usable surveys resulted from the forty-six students pre-tested. Two "pro-test" responses were detected. Five of the students involved in the project were absent the day of the pre-test. Therefore, the pre-test yielded a response rate of 86% (44/51) of the sample population. All 51 post-tests were usable.

The results of the pre-post-test indicated statistically significant (t-test, p<0.05) increases in overall measures of sense of self, research skills, and general community knowledge. Changes in measures of the students' sense of community were not unambiguously positive, statistically speaking. Positive responses about the quality of life in Immokalee tended to decrease while responses about the role of youth in the community tended to increase between the pre- and post-tests.


This project attempted to combine skill development and empowerment objectives for young people with the informational needs of the community. A discussion of a number of the experiences gained through this project may help those interested in including young people in community development research. Observations from the project include:

  • Setting up the interview was the most stressful and taxing of the students' tasks. In retrospect, it consumed more energy than it was worth from an educational standpoint and from the perspective of the successful implementation of the project. Alternatives should be explored, if possible.

  • The project's use of high school students as surveyors created a number of unique challenges. First, the students were not really volunteers. The project was a part of their class assignments for which they were to receive a grade. However, the project leaders were not the regular teachers and the project was not fully integrated into class planning. This resulted in an inferior learning tool for the students.

  • In addition, these high school students were not accustomed to (unsupervised) after-school responsibilities. Interest in the project was sufficient to motivate some, while class grades motivated others. A few students had difficulty carrying out the interviews at the right time and in the right way without substantial assistance. A lack of time for additional extracurricular activities contributed to this difficulty.

  • Both the student participants and the business community had a unique ethnic composition. Groups had to handle interviews in Creole, Spanish and English. This challenge was anticipated. However, we were surprised by the number of Asian and Middle Eastern business owners, particularly in the convenience stores. The survey couldn't handle this information. As a result, these people had to be categorized as "other."

Summary and Conclusions

The project employed 51 high school students to implement a survey of local businesses based upon face-to-face interview techniques. Student interviewers were trained in the basics of survey research: interviewing techniques, survey design, promotions, data analysis, write-up and presentation of results.

Care was taken to make the experience both educational and enjoyable since significant out-of-school time was required of the students. Students were integrated into all phases of the project to the extent that student time and energy allowed. Several students commented on the post-test that they enjoyed the experience and that they gained knowledge about their community that they hadn't known before.

This report attempted to detail efforts to wed educational priorities with economic development objectives in a rural community in Southwest Florida. Youth involvement in community development projects provided the focus for this report. The current literature points to the importance of involving youth in rural community development. This project demonstrates one way in which young people can be incorporated into economic development research initiatives.

This project provided useful information about the community's current and anticipated business needs for very little financial investment. In addition, it identified and encouraged a pool of potential local leaders by providing them with skills and insights they might not otherwise have had.

The project also provided helpful positive community-wide publicity to the school system. It created a potential point of collaboration between the business community and the educational system (for example, student internships or apprenticeships). One business owner commented, "I appreciate the interest of the school. I really enjoyed talking to the girls. They did an excellent job."

To the student interviewers, the project provided research experience, general knowledge and indicators of self worth. They gained practical experience working in teams and with survey research methods. Business owners commented on the students' comportment and their abilities during the interview process. For example "Interviewers were very polite and well behaved. I would like to do it again sometime." "Interviewers did a great job" and the "student conducted himself with a very professional attitude in the survey." Students developed an appreciation for community needs and recognized an opportunity to contribute. Hopefully, they also had a good time.


Partial funding was provided by the 4-H Foundation. The candid and useful comments of three anonymous reviewers were appreciated. The authors thank Glenn Israel for his help and guidance. Most of all, the authors thank the students of Kathy Ryan's 2nd and 5th period classes, spring semester 1995. Their efforts are reported here. Seidl was a graduate research assistant with the Food and Resource Economics Department, University of Florida, when this project was undertaken. As usual, the authors remain responsible for any errors.


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