An Examination of the United Future Leaders Program, Texas Tech University Center for Adolescent Resiliency
Levin, Jason M.
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As the Texas legislature continues to increase state accountability, most recently with the A-F system (House Bill 22, 2017), many schools have opted to implement afterschool programs to “address the social and emotional needs of their students” (Texas Education Code (TEC) §28.002(a)(2)(C)). Research in the field of social and emotional learning (SEL) has proliferated over the past decade as an umbrella term to include “non-cognitive development, character education, 21st-century skills, and trauma-informed learning, among others” (Jones et al., 2017, p. 4). Grit, growth mindset, and social skills are all skills under the SEL umbrella, but researchers, educators, and policymakers all struggle to agree on what skills to target and to find an intervention that addresses and addresses all of these skills. Purpose: One program that seeks to develop students’ success and resilience is the United Future Leaders (UFL) program. Research on SEL and curricular programs are plentiful, but little research is being done on the implementation of these programs across different sites. Program evaluation allows teachers, parents, and school administrators the ability to choose programs that address the social and emotional learning elements they value, implement programs with fidelity, and ensure the program is reaching its intended outcomes. Given this lack of attention to program evaluation, and more specifically to process evaluation, the purpose of this study was to examine program outcomes from three different elementary schools in the South Plains region of the West Texas area which implemented the UFL program as an after-school enrichment. This study also sought to investigate whether there were differences in site outcomes for the UFL after-school program focused on building resiliency. Therefore, the following research questions will be explored: 1. How do study participants (program administrators and staff) describe program characteristics and implementation across individual campuses? 2. How do study participants (program administrators and staff) describe program outcomes across individual campuses? Methods: In order to lay out a deep understanding of what transpires during an UFL course, this study used a comparative case study design employing semi-structured interviews that were conducted with the director of the UFL, assistant director of the UFL, and the UFL program coordinator, as well as the two undergraduate research facilitators and the three principals of the elementary sites included in this study. Also, data from the 2017-2018 UFL Annual Report, which summarizes the survey findings for fifth and sixth grade UFL participants during the academic year 2017-2018, informed this study. Additional data sources, such as program documents and reports were analyzed. This approach allowed for case study descriptions of each of the three elementary sites to be developed, taking into account unique contexts of each location as well as cross-cutting themes across the three sites. Following the semi-structured interviews, transcripts and notes were coded to identify themes among the three different UFL elementary sites. Interview transcripts were reviewed numerous times as the researcher “move[d] from reading to describing, classifying, and interpreting” (Creswell, 2013, p. 184). Additionally, as a form of member checking, the researcher shared transcripts and findings with study participants to confirm results. Data obtained from the interviews and the 2017-2018 UFL Programming Research Report enabled the researcher to triangulate data results to ensure rigor (Creswell & Miller, 2000). Results: The study results are based on how participants described the program characteristics and implementation differences at individual campuses and how those participants described the outcome differences among the different campuses. As expected, the differences identified in the UFL Annual Report are not based on a single phenomenon, but a combination of training protocols for college-age student volunteers, fidelity in curriculum implementation, adequate resources, and campus administrative support. Conclusion: The findings revealed that in order to grow the UFL program with fidelity, student volunteers must be trained on a regular and more consistent basis. Also, student volunteers must not stray from the prescribed curriculum. In addition, campuses (and districts) with administrative support for the UFL Program were more successful. Finally, additional funding sources and human resources must be obtained before the program can expand while realizing its vision of establishing environments where successful leaders can thrive.