Centering Young People Is the Through-Line of Our Work

By Jonathan F. Zaff, Founding Director of the CERES Institute for Children & Youth

I’m brought to this work by the recognition that too often communities, especially historically marginalized and disenfranchised communities, have been “worked on” and not worked with. 

Ethically, this is wrong. But also, by researching this way, we don’t necessarily end up asking the right questions nor developing the methods to get to the right solutions — to improve the lives of the people and communities we purport to be supporting with our work.

The through-line of all we do at CERES is placing the lives of young people at the center of our work.  We don’t start with questions about how to build the best programs or how to create the best schools. Instead, we work with communities to ask “who” young people are, “what” do young people need, and “how” do we get them what they need. We co-construct more specific questions about the young people in their community (and with young people, themselves!), recognizing that the expertise about what life is like in communities, in schools, and in programs rests with the people who live in those communities, work in those schools, lead those programs (and attend those schools and programs). They’re not giving us information, they’re working with us to create the knowledge that they want and need to support their young people.

When we’re gathering data, we’re clear that the data belongs to the people in these communities. It’s not ours. 

At the CERES Institute, we are not the experts on how communities can strengthen their supports for their children and youth – we have seen too many times that self-described experts have parachuted into communities with “solutions” that fell flat, wasted valuable and limited resources, and left children and their families no better off than before. The experts are the families in communities who charge themselves every day with the task of raising their children, the schools in communities that charge themselves with the responsibility of educating every child, and the community-based organizations that charge themselves to support every aspect of a young person’s development. 

We believe that when we can meet the expertise in communities with our expertise in authentically community-engaged applied research and evaluation, we can identify the core problems that young people are facing, design solutions that capitalize on the inherent assets of young people and their communities, and continually learn and improve on these solutions until we achieve the positive educational and life outcomes we, collectively, want for all. Importantly, we support communities in building their capacity to learn and improve so that we are no longer needed; so that communities place children and youth at the center of everything they do, so that they understand more fully who their young people are, what their young people need to thrive, and their practices, programs, and policies that actually will get their young people what they need. 

Jonathan F. Zaff is Research Professor, Applied Human Development and the Founding Director of the CERES Institute for Children & Youth at the Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development.

Current Initiatives

Relationship-Focused Schools Initiative

Relationship-Focused Schools Initiative

In partnership with MENTOR (the National Mentoring Partnership), CERES Institute is working with a set of school districts on how they can develop a “relationships strategy” for their schools. CERES Institute will serve as a research and evaluation partner for MENTOR during this three-year initiative.

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Choices and Challenges

Choices and Challenges

In Florida, thanks to a robust school choice environment, parents of students with disabilities have access to several educational options through two specific statewide scholarship programs. To shed light on how parents utilize these scholarships, a team of researchers from CERES Institute for Children and Youth, in partnership with the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, share findings from a mixed-methods study, conducted between fall 2020 to spring 2021, as well as implications for policy and practice.

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Debate-Inspired Classrooms Learning Plan

Debate-Inspired Classrooms Learning Plan

How can Debate-Inspired Classrooms better engage students as leaders in their own learning? The CERES Institute for Children & Youth is partnering with the Boston Debate League and Boston Public Schools’ Dr. William W. Henderson Inclusion School to answer this question and more.

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Evaluation of the Department of Youth Services’ YES Initiative

Evaluation of the Department of Youth Services’ YES Initiative

The CERES Institute for Children & Youth is examining how the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Youth Services’ Youth Engaged in Services Initiative – the YES Initiative – provides voluntary individualized supports to youth involved with the juvenile justice system and the impact of the YES Initiative on youth recidivism rates.

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The Center for Promise

The Center for Promise

The Center for Promise is the applied research institute of America’s Promise Alliance, housed at Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development. Its mission is to develop a deep understanding of the conditions necessary for young people in the United States to succeed in school and life.

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