Against a bleak backdrop of growing income inequality and decreasing educational mobility, Smith College professors Sam M. Intrator and Don Siegel shine a light on the role of out-of-school programs in engaging low-income children and youth in meaningful experiences of play, work, and community practice. In The Quest for Mastery: Positive Youth Development Through Out-of-School Programs, the authors, who once believed that schools were the “fulcrum that could lift the academic achievement of young people” (p. 26), discuss how their ten-year foray into developing an afterschool sports program shifted their understanding of what determines educational achievement. They describe how this shift inspired their exploration of the unique opportunity that out-of-school programs hold for young people’s academic and social engagement. Describing their own program, Project Coach, and their investigation of several programs of its ilk, Intrator and Siegel illuminate students’ lives beyond schools and the particular role that youth development organizations play in energizing, engaging, and empowering students.

To build the case for out-of-school programs, the authors profile four innovative exemplars: StreetSquash, G-Row, Artists for Humanity, and their own Project Coach. To further elucidate their findings, they gracefully weave in observations and interviews with students and practitioners from more than thirty other programs. They suggest that these programs—whether focused on music, sports, media, or writing—spark interest in students who are otherwise disengaged from their school experiences and provide a “complex web of relationships” (p. x) that supports students’ navigation of home, school, and pathways to college. Moreover, they maintain that the practitioners in these spaces exhibit a willingness to do what it takes to “‘throw everything and the kitchen sink’ at the intractable problem of helping high-need but promising young people fulfill the American dream” (p. 5).

In the first few chapters of the book, Intrator and Siegel consider the overall logic of out-of-school programs that enable students to become deeply invested in a new activity, be it basketball, painting, or rowing. While they began their research by asking practitioners how they can explicitly engage students in building capacities (“acquiring habits of self-monitoring and self regulation” and “learning how to work through failure and success”), they soon realized that the heart of these programs was in doing an activity rather than learning about it (p. 47): “These capacities, while the lifeblood of these programs, don’t get taught methodologically or didactically. The programs we observed— StreetSquash, Artists for Humanity, G-row, and others—infuse learning, teaching, and socialization into the process of engaging in the activity” (p. 48).

In subsequent chapters, the authors delve into the core contributions of these programs to students’ lives. Rather than focusing on niche academic skills and outcomes gained by students in each program, they feature students’ acquisition of “supercognitives,” skills they define as “critical capacities foundational to success at any endeavor” (p. 17) that motivate program design and practices. They found that despite the different activities of these organizations, the studied programs strove for positive youth development in strikingly similar ways: through developing communities of practice, by fostering a mastery mind-set, in developing intrinsic motivation, and by accruing social capital.

Intrator and Siegel dissuade readers from thinking there is some secret recipe for instantaneously engaging and inspiring students; rather, they reiterate that engaging students in long-term activities is challenging and requires persistence by both students and program staff. The authors describe how passionate practitioners infuse these environments with their love for the content area. These instructors bring expertise in both the activity of interest and youth development, and they instill the necessity of discipline and practice in achieving mastery. The authors observe how everyday routines allow students to hone their expertise. For example, they describe Artists for Humanity, a program that attracts many students who are interested in art but have little to no experience painting and who, to acquire expertise in painting, participate in scaffolded art lessons.

Additionally, Intrator and Siegel find that afterschool contexts offer young people agency in choosing what type of program fits their interests and are often where students have their first jobs (many programs hire teenagers to work with younger students or offer compensation for participation). These extrinsic rewards contribute to students’ long-term engagement in afterschool activities and, simultaneously, build an intrinsic desire to stay involved in these programs.

In the book’s concluding chapters, Siegel and Intrator explore the transfer of skills across contexts and consider the ways in which schools can learn from the unique attributes of out-of-school programs. They confess, “Our aspirations hinge on the assumption that what youth learn in our programs will show up in other contexts in their lives” (p. 144). However, the reality, which Intrator and Siegel learned early in their work at Project Coach, is that students’ experiences across contexts are disjointed and often inconsistent. Their youth coaches, for example, who were energetic and engaged with children on the courts, did not necessarily demonstrate this same passion when it came to homework. The authors make a more prescriptive suggestion to educators to explicitly engage in teaching and connecting the sense of commitment, passion, and positive communication—the supercognitives—to students’ broader educational trajectories. This might entail having regular check-ins regarding grades and school interactions or identifying areas of academic, social, or emotional challenges that can be addressed through the program activities. Finally, the authors consider the ways in which features of out-of-school programs—an informal approach to learning, a focus on doing rather than on pure thought, and an emphasis on empowering rather than serving students—can inform possibilities for school reform.

Some of the most striking moments in the book are discussions of the authors’ experiences at Project Coach, in which they illuminate the realities of a literal and metaphorical playing field. In these instances we witness Project Coach students’ interactions with same-age peers on a private soccer club team and the journey from the pristine lawns of Smith College to the “scuffed and airless gym of the Gerena Community School” (p. 19). Through these illustrative contrasts readers understand the complexities of out-of-school programs’ role in addressing deeply entrenched socioeconomic disparities.

We also catch glimpses of the complexities of cultural inequality. For example, several of the programs featured (e.g., squash and lacrosse) are expensive, exclusive hobbies that are not particularly culturally relevant endeavors for the participating students. While exposure to these activities, and their Ivy League leaders, affords new opportunities and expands youths’ social networks, the authors do not fully explore the possible reinforcement of white middle-class culture and the potential, unintentional devaluation of existing community capital and resources through those programs’ focus on traditionally elitist sports.

There are instances in which the authors delve into community cultural assets being honored, such as their discussion of student experiences in A-VOYCE (Asian Voices of Organized Youth for Community Empowerment) or their recognition of a youth sports coach’s ability to speak Spanish to Project Coach families, unlike her college-educated colleagues. These insights, further explored, could provide an alternative narrative regarding the unique role of programming in disrupting and reframing what types of knowledge and activities can and should be valued and considered worthy in formal education contexts.

The Quest for Mastery is an important and unique contribution to the burgeoning literature on out-of-school time contexts and issues of educational inequality. It is an uplifting and optimistic portrayal of the innovative work taking place in often underexamined spaces of youth development. Over the past twenty years, afterschool programs have experienced increasing pressure from public and private funders to demonstrate measurable academic outcomes (see Halpern, 2000; Fusco, 2011). Rather than playing into this pressure, Intrator and Siegel discuss broader, transferable benefits that naturally guide the work of these rapidly proliferating programs. Their book is a refreshing reprieve from “testing and accountability mania” (p. 8) and the pervasive, narrow attention on literacy and numeracy found in current policy reform. In addition, their insights as youth leaders, educators, and experienced academics in urban education and sports studies offer a prismatic lens into the possibilities of out-of-school programs in the education reform movement. The authors’ openness and enthusiasm in discussing out-of-school time makes this book an accessible and informative resource for those already engaged in this work––policy makers, funders, and afterschool practitioners—as well as for potential newcomers to the topic, such as teachers, researchers, and education reformers. For those teaching about urban education and education reform, The Quest for Mastery could be an important primer on the role of structured out-of-school time programming in expanding students’ social networks and academic engagement.

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