Recruiting and Retaining High School Students

Recruit and Retain

Teenagers crave independence and the power to make their own choices — characteristics that make high school students hard to recruit to out-of-school time programs. Wondering how to motivate these youths to join your 21st CCLC program? This Click & Go will help program directors, site coordinators and other afterschool leaders develop a recruitment and retention plan that resonates with older teens.

After completing this Click & Go, you'll be able to: 

  • Understand the unique needs of high school students and families.

  • Identify the barriers and motivators for high school student out-of-school time participation.

  • Implement key recruitment and retention strategies that connect to community and population-specific needs.

  • Develop a comprehensive Recruitment and Retention Plan. 

Zip Link (56 MB) Click on the link to download the resources for this Click & Go! 


Mini-Lesson: Recruiting and Retaining High School Students

Assessing High School Student Needs

This podcast explores best practices for better understanding the unique needs of your high school students. It suggests ways for students and families to inform programming, and tackles how to be intentional about gathering input from the hardest-to-reach student groups (fringe students, disengaged youth, English learners). Because every community is different, you need to know specifics for your community and students. Rural vs. urban, or 10 languages spoken vs. one language, uncovering the barriers helps you tailor your program to reduce obstacles and increase engagement, recruitment and retention. [Download Transcript]

Empowering Youth Through Leadership

Build intrinsic motivation for high school students to join and attend by giving them opportunities to lead. Experiences such as mentoring, recruiting peers, designing community service projects, and participating in apprenticeships and certification programs can be powerful “hooks.” Many high school youths are interested or involved in work opportunities. Programs that cultivate leadership skills and provide real-world experiences are often very successful with high school students. Strategies include developing partnerships, offering flexible scheduling, and building in work or internship opportunities. [Download Transcript]

Relationships Matter

Building strong connections among students, families, school-day staff and other partners is critical to providing a clear path for long-term success and achievement for high school program participants. Creating connections helps dissolve the barriers to participation, especially for youth who are traditionally less likely to participate (fringe students, disengaged youth, English learners) because they do not feel strongly connected to the school community.  Strategies include connecting with participants’ lives outside of the program (life events, challenges, accomplishments and behaviors), taking a mentoring approach, and practicing active listening. [Download Transcript]

Finding Your Why: Youth Talk About Program Participation

This podcast presents the perspectives of a former high school student in a 21st CCLC program turned 21st CCLC staff member, and a high school student currently in a 21st CCLC program. They talk about what makes out-of-school time programs valuable and engaging as they offer their experiences and insights to help you think about best practices for recruiting and retaining teenagers in your program.  [Download Transcript]

City Strategies to Engage Older Youth in Afterschool Programs from the National League of Cities

A strategy guide for creating enriching, relevant and supportive out-of-school time (OST) middle and high school programs in urban areas. The guide provides suggestions for overcoming barriers to youth participation. LINK

Reaching All High School Students: A Multi-Tiered Approach from P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School

Video that shares ideas for building relationships with high school students by responding to the increased academic demands and specific social and emotional challenges of high school students.LINK

Engaging Older Youth: Program and City-Level Strategies to Support Sustained Participation in Out-of-School Time from the Harvard Family Research Project/The Wallace Foundation

Report from a study that examined program characteristics — program practices and structural features — associated with high participation and retention in OST programs, primarily serving disadvantaged youth, in six cities. The report addresses how OST programs can keep middle and high school youth engaged over time. LINK

Mentor: The National Mentoring Partnership

This national nonprofit is dedicated to increasing the quality and quantity of mentorship opportunities across the nation.LINK

“Research-Based Practices in Afterschool Programs for High School Youth” from Afterschool Matters Journal

This article highlights research findings that point to characteristics of afterschool programs that enhance the academic and social development of high school students. It focuses on 21st CCLC afterschool programs serving high school students in a Midwestern state. LINK

Recruiting and Retaining Older African American and Hispanic Boys in After-School Programs from Public/Private Ventures

This report on a small study identifies promising strategies used by afterschool programs to recruit and retain middle and high school-aged African American and Hispanic males.LINK

United Way Mentoring Resources

United Way’s resource site offers information from research, tools and other resources for structuring strong mentorship opportunities in out-of-school time activities.LINK

This is where connections are key! You can form partnerships with other local programs where younger siblings can be referred. Help connect families to the enrollment process or hold joint enrollment sessions. Program leaders can also help foster connections among families. Families may be able to share pickup and drop-off duties or rotate childcare responsibilities.

Allow for flexible attendance when possible, and form relationships with staff members of the external activities. Working together, the organizations could build complementary program calendars. It might be possible to consider the students as jointly enrolled. Consider ways students can split their time: Maybe the student attends your program three days a week, and the other activity two days, or vice versa. Or perhaps the student attends both programs each day. They could attend academic enrichment or tutoring before signing into sports practice, for example. Build a clear schedule so that everyone is on the same page. As you work with other organizations, be sure to develop attendance accountability measures and communication pathways.

New partnerships and supplemental funding sources can be a way of providing incentivized participation while staying compliant with federal or state regulations. Businesses, organizations and local governments are all places to look for partnerships. They may offer paid internships, gift card donations, or paid training certificate programs for work accomplished in your out-of-school time program. Or, apply for additional grants to use as supplemental income. This income may allow you to provide incentives such as stipends for program attendance and completion, transportation reimbursement, or scholarship funding.

A key factor for high school students is relevance! Make sure you create space for students to explore their unique interests and provide opportunities for students to give input on offered programming. Peer relationships are also extremely important. Encourage students to bring friends to the program. Empower current students to act as recruitment ambassadors who highlight the program’s relevance to their current and future goals. Support the development of new relationships among students. Lastly, make sure to distinguish your program from the school day and other afterschool programs. Also, if your teen program looks and feels exactly like the programming for younger students, it will be difficult to maintain engagement.

Partner with organizations that aren’t necessarily geographically close, but have missions to support development in rural areas. They will be able to provide additional suggestions and resource connections. Consider what community assets could be leveraged, such as a population of retired individuals who might be willing to volunteer. Students can also research jobs or businesses that exist elsewhere and decide how they can develop something similar in their own community. University or college students who live in the area may also provide support when they are home on vacations and breaks.