Maximizing Youth Leadership in Out-of-School Time Programs: Six Best Practices from Youth Driven Spaces


  • Jamie Heng-Chieh Wu Michigan State University
  • Alison Shereda Michigan State University
  • Sara T. Stacy Michigan State University
  • John Kenneth Weiss The Neutral Zone
  • Megan Heintschel Specialist in Global Regulatory Reporting



youth leadership, out-of-school time programs, youth-adult partnership, youth development, youth voice, youth-driven practice


This paper aims to provide strategies for youth-serving organizations to maximize opportunities for youth to develop leadership skills within the out-of-school time program context. The sample includes 5 youth-serving agencies who participated in the Youth Driven Spaces initiative led by a Midwest program. Data for this project included observations of youth–adult meetings, field notes from youths’ reflections on key model activities, and interviews with adult staff to identify common challenges and supportive solutions. We identified 6 emergent themes for supporting youth leadership: (a) engage youth in meetings, (b) create opportunities for youth to learn how to be leaders, (c) recognize resistance to youth voice, (d) encourage youth and adults to share constructive feedback, (e) navigate youth–adult boundaries, and (f) practice intentional strategies to retain youth and to onboard new youth and staff. Results provide concrete strategies for practitioners and researchers to empower youth with the skills and resources they need to be effective leaders.

Author Biographies

Jamie Heng-Chieh Wu, Michigan State University

Jamie Heng-Chieh Wu, Ph.D. is an associate director for Community Evaluation Programs at the Office of University Outreach and Engagement and research assistant professor at the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Michigan State University. She conducts evaluation focusing on programming for children and youth participating in academic and enrichment activities outside of K-12 classrooms. She is a member of key coalitions and collaboratives that aim to strengthen Michigan's out-of-school time and preschool networks. In 2018, Dr. Wu was recognized by the National Afterschool Association as one of the most influential people in afterschool research and evaluation. For more information about her work:  

Alison Shereda, Michigan State University

Alison Shereda was a student research assistant at Michigan State University's Office for Outreach and Engagement. At MSU, she evaluated youth-driven programs to identify best practices and effective ways to enhance youths' experience, decision-making, and leadership skills in community-based afterschool programs. She graduated from James Madison College at Michigan State University with a degree in Comparative Cultures and Politics. Alison is currently pursuing her Master of Science in Environment and Sustainability from the University of Michigan, concentrating in Sustainability and Development and Environmental Justice.  

Sara T. Stacy, Michigan State University

Sara T. Stacy, Ph.D. is a Research Associate at the University of Cincinnati Evaluation Services Center, where she leads and supports a diverse array of evaluation and research projects, primarily focused on supporting education and community-based systems. To each project, she brings her training and background in community psychology, which enables her to work in partnership with diverse stakeholders to design, implement, and evaluate initiatives to best support youth, adults, families, and communities. She has experience using and developing participatory, qualitative, mixed methods that meaningfully engage stakeholders in research and evaluation projects. Through all her work, she maintains a commitment and emphasis toward practices that promote holistic educational equity and justice. 

John Kenneth Weiss, The Neutral Zone

John Weiss, M.P.P., M.U.P., has worked with diverse populations of youth, youth serving programs and schools for 25 years.   He currently serves as the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Neutral Zone and was its Executive Director from 2005-2014.  He has trained and coached 1000s of adults and youth from across Michigan and other states in both the Youth Driven Spaces framework and in restorative practices.   John also served as a teacher in the Ypsilanti Public Schools.  For 7 years he served as the Director of the Adolescent Division at the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, now the Weikart Center for Program Quality where he was one of the initial developers of the Youth Program Quality Assessment (YPQA).   

Megan Heintschel, Specialist in Global Regulatory Reporting

Megan Heintschel is a Global Regulatory Reporting Analysis Specialist with a BA in International Relations from the James Madison College at Michigan State University. Experienced Research Assistant with a demonstrated history of working in higher education, non-profits, governmental relations and the FinTech space. Strong specialization lies within Regulatory Reporting in the Derivatives & Securities Market.  


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Research & Evaluation Studies