Student Union

By Maura Dinwiddie

High-school students have a variety of options for after-school activities—some more constructive than others. So how do you connect with teenagers and engage them in the healthy, positive, and productive options?


How do you convince them that staying after school for a fitness class or volunteering at the local soup kitchen is more exciting than a trip to the mall with friends or going home to play video games?

The answer is simple, and takes less effort than one might think—equip teenagers with the tools and ability to develop their own programs.

Like many recreation departments, the one in the city of Gaithersburg, Md., has established successful after-school programs for elementary and middle-school ages, but a definite disconnect happened once participants reached high school.

In 2010, the city introduced a new program exclusively for high-school students called the Student Union. Membership includes opportunities to participate in after-school activities, fundraising events, and field trips, as well as volunteering at community events. A nominal annual fee is required to join, and additional fees are sometimes required to cover trip expenses.

Now, two years after its inception, the Student Union boasts 285 active members, and has collectively volunteered more than 4,000 hours.

An Obvious Divide
The first step in developing the program was taken in 2009 when a new youth center opened in the heart of the city. Traditionally, the center catered to middle-school students. However, membership to the new center was extended to high-school ages as well.

The difference in age and interests between the middle- and high-school students was obvious when the center opened, and it became evident that the older teens needed something that was all their own.

City youth-services staff members approached local high-school administrators and asked them to identify the greatest out-of-school needs for students. At the top of the list was a safe place to go after the dismissal bell rang.

While students were actively encouraged to participate in school-based extracurricular activities, too often academic ineligibility, financial limitations, or a lack of student initiative prevented teens from joining school sports and clubs.

Another major area of concern was connecting new students (particularly a large population of immigrant youth) with the community both in and out of school.

Based on this feedback, the city proceeded with a pilot activity, offering one afternoon a week of intramural soccer for older students at the recreation activity center (adjacent to the high school). Participation did not require academic eligibility, and was offered free of charge. Student interest in the soccer program was tremendous.

Student Input
With the support of school administration, city staff began visiting a local high school during lunch one day a week and formed a focus group of students. Participants from the drop-in soccer program were encouraged to attend and bring friends to these lunch meetings (for most students, the incentive of a free slice of pizza was reason enough to go).

It was at these meetings that the vision of the Student Union began to take shape. Teens were asked what they wanted a recreation club to include. What did they want to do after school? What field trips did they want to take? What did they need outside of the classroom to reach the end goal of graduation?

The students answered and city staff listened.

Teens wanted to play soccer, play basketball, learn to dance, go to movies, and visit amusement parks; in addition, each student needed 75 volunteer hours to graduate. Staff members now had a solid starting point.

A crucial question, though, came next—how can the city afford to offer these activities, and what can students afford to pay to participate?

Outlining The Program
Based on the number of students who qualified for free or reduced lunch at school, it was decided that membership dues had to be affordable. The proposed annual fee of $5 for city residents and $10 for non-residents was approved, as well as a $13,000 budget for the 2010-2011 school year. The funds covered staff salaries, operating costs, and activity expenses.

Prior to the start of the 2010 fall semester, city staff devised a simple schedule of Student Union activities during the first months of school. Programs included 3 days a week of intramural sports at the activity center (soccer, volleyball, and basketball), a half-day trip to a nearby mall, and two volunteer opportunities (a park clean-up project and helping at a community housing fair).

Word Spreads
Initially, recruiting teens to join the Student Union consisted of lunchtime visits to the high school with flyers and face-to-face promotion of activities. It didn’t take long for a handful of registered Student Union members to take over this responsibility. Students recruiting students and word-of-mouth proved to be the most effective means of enrolling new members.

Student effort combined with support from the faculty allowed numbers to slowly but steadily climb. The development group page using social media allowed staff members to continue to promote activities and reach out to even more local teens. This approach was hugely successful.

As numbers and interest grew, however, so did the need for a bigger budget. Several fundraisers were organized to offer the trips and activities that members requested. Members have sold baked goods and glowsticks at local events, raked leaves, shoveled snow, and washed countless cars to earn more opportunities for field trips.

Student Union members continue to raise enough money to significantly defray program expenses and still afford to donate to worthy local and national causes and charities.

It’s been two years since the Student Union was first offered. Programs and interest continue to grow at a remarkable rate.

Teens can be a difficult demographic to engage and hold their interest. The Student Union format entrusts high-school students to assume responsibility for the success of a program, and holds them accountable to make it their own. It’s this sense of ownership that keeps members dedicated to the programs and devoted to the club.

Maura Dinwiddie is the recreation program supervisor for the city of Gaithersburg, Md. Reach her at For more information on the Student Union, visit

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How To Build A Successful Student Union

• Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. A good relationship with school administration and community partners both in and outside of an organization is vital in developing a strong program. This combined support makes the vision possible.

• Ask school administrators and the teens themselves what they need and want. Don’t waste time and energy developing a program that doesn’t appeal to teen interests.

• Involve teens in planning and developing programs while encouraging low- and no-cost options (e.g., hiking). High-school students are only a few short steps away from entering adulthood. Give them a chance to prove their ability to coordinate trips and activities while offering your support and guidance along the way.

• Involve teens in volunteer opportunities; this is an integral component to success. Not only do students benefit by earning volunteer hours required to graduate and acquire practical work experience, but volunteering gives them a sense of purpose and responsibility in their community. Students learn that their actions make a difference.

• Encourage participation in fundraising. Teens need to feel ownership of the program—not just in planning, but in making the plans a reality.