Inner city teenagers in North Philadelphia identified education and employment opportunities as the most important factors that would help them achieve a positive future. While acknowledging the risks existing in a high-poverty urban environment, the teens presented an optimistic view that solutions offered by education, jobs and interaction with involved adults could help them succeed in life.
"This study carries strong messages about the hopes and strengths of inner-city youth," said Kenneth R. Ginsburg, M.D., M.S. Ed., a pediatrician in The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's Craig-Dalsimer Division of Adolescent Medicine. He is lead author of the study, reported in two articles in the June issue of Pediatrics. "The adults who requested the survey originally assumed that the main concerns of urban teenagers would be avoiding teen pregnancy and violence. We designed a survey to directly ask teenagers what they thought."
Approximately 1,750 8th, 9th and 12th graders participated in the survey, led by researchers from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the Urban Initiative of the City of Philadelphia. A series of small focus groups allowed youths to generate all the ideas on the survey and later, to explain them.
The teenagers were asked what factors they believed would make the most difference in influencing whether they would have a positive future - defined as growing up "feeling respected, feeling good about themselves, and capable of taking care of themselves and their loved ones." One representative comment from an 8th grade student about their priorities was, "It's all about a better education, because without an education you can't get a job, so that should be the first thing up there."
The fact that the teenagers rated supportive solutions as a higher priority than addressing risks or disruptive surroundings lends support to a theory called the "youth resiliency model," which holds that young people are more likely to overcome adversity when they can draw on protective forces within the individual, family, school and community. "It may be that focusing too much on risk factors may be harmful, because it may convey a message that we expect young people to engage in risky behaviors," said social worker Maisha Sullivan, M.S.W., a study co-author. Currently a member of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, she formerly directed the Urban Initiative of the City of Philadelphia, which commissioned the research.
The students did not ignore challenging issues in their environment, such as crime, drugs and poverty, but did offer positive alternatives to the draw of the street. Many students mentioned the importance of recreation programs, community centers and after-school activities, and 12th graders in particular stressed the need for adult role models.
"Policy-makers concerned with urban environments should continue to address risk factors affecting young people, but should also look beyond reduction of risk," said Dr. Ginsburg. Further studies, he added, should address how the protective effects of education, jobs and job training, connections to caring adults, and community-based programs might shape positive outcomes for urban adolescents.
The students participating in the survey and focus groups attended five high schools and four middle schools, all in North Philadelphia, in 1997. Approximately 65 percent of the 1,761 students completing useable surveys were African American, 24 percent were Latino, 3 percent were white, 2 percent were Asian and 6 percent were "other." The researchers found that the students' gender or race had little effect on how they ranked the ideas.
The researchers received financial support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the William Penn Foundation. Co-authors of the articles, in addition to Dr. Ginsburg and Ms. Sullivan, were Penny M. Alexander, M.S.W., and Jean Hunt, R.N., both of the Urban Initiative; and Avital Cnaan, Ph.D., and Huaqing Zhao, M.A., both of the Division of Biostatistics and Epidemiology, of The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
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