Introducing The Skillman Visionary Awards
Organizational Learning

What’s Hope got to do with it? Everything.

The Skillman Foundation’s Opportunity Agenda for Detroit Children is grounded in three key metrics: third-grade reading proficiency, meaningful high-school graduation, and youth perceptions of hope and opportunity. Since launching the Opportunity Agenda, we have tracked two of the three metrics through indicators like MSTEP and SAT scores and high school graduation rates. We have been eager to develop a robust way to document what may be the most important indicator of all: the extent to which Detroit youth are hopeful about their lives and their futures.

Our theory of change and our values point to youth perception of hope as both a precondition to academic performance and social and emotional development and as a result of engagement with caring adults at school and in their communities. It can be considered the most important way to assess the performance of the Opportunity Agenda.

The importance of youth hope is bourne out of research that shows that students who have high hopes are more successful academically, have stronger friendships, and demonstrate more creativity and better problem-solving skills. Ultimately, they have a positive outlook for their future.

Gathering the data

We commissioned the development of a survey to measure youth hope in 2019. We set out to develop an instrument that could be used with middle- and high-school students to assess youth hope and the factors that both predict and derive from it. Our research partners, Youth Development Strategies, Inc. and JFM Consulting, were able to field the survey this past spring, providing much needed insight into what youth are thinking and feeling.

What youth have to say

The results from the pilot are exciting. We learned things that both support the on-going efforts to improve education and youth development opportunities in Detroit and challenge all of us to step up and live up to what youth are thinking and feeling at this challenging time:

  • Young people are hopeful, expressing both the belief that they can determine their own destiny and the belief that they know how to get on the path to their desired future.
  • Most young people have at least one relationship with a caring adult outside of their family—perhaps a teacher, a neighbor, or someone they connected with in a youth program or at work.
  • Youth hopefulness appears to be connected to these relationships. Young people with three or more caring adults in their lives report feeling much more hopeful than youth with fewer of these relationships.
  • Young people feel prepared for college. The vast majority of them report that adults encourage their college aspirations, and that they feel ready for what college will require. Those young people with three or more caring adults in their lives are even more likely to feel this way.

This study—a pilot test of the survey we plan expand to capture citywide data next year—provides both encouraging and troubling results for us to explore more deeply. We are encouraged that young people in Detroit have an overwhelming sense of agency—they feel that that they can set the course of their own lives. We are also encouraged that so many young people have caring adults in their lives.

Implications of the data

When we dig a bit deeper, however, we see a few troubling signs: access to caring adults appears to decline as kids move from middle school to high school, suggesting that they have less adult support as they embark upon the transition to college or career. That is troubling. Additionally, despite the confidence that kids express about their readiness for college, the data on actual college readiness paints a different story for many high school graduates in Detroit. This critical mismatch in young people’s perception of readiness and actual readiness is one that should concern all of us.

So, what does hope have to do with it? Everything. We must celebrate the fact that despite COVID, the on-going struggle for racial equality, and navigating day-to-day challenges youth in Detroit remain hopeful. We must value that and do our best as funders, educators, advocates, and direct service providers to not let them down.

Dr. Andrea Anderson discussed the results of the survey with three Detroit youth: Daren AndersonGrant Johnson, and Isabelle Maynard. Watch the full conversation here.

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