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Youth Frontiers:
Changing the Way Young People Treat One Another


Youth Frontiers President Joe Cavanaugh brings the virtues of kindness, courage, and respect to schools in daylong retreats in which "MTV meets Aristotle!" Included: Comments from counselor Mandy Little and student leader Cara Sandberg about the value of Youth Frontiers retreats in their schools!

Image "I started Youth Frontiers in 1987," company president Joe Cavanaugh told Education World. "At first, I gave motivational speeches and conducted school assemblies on self-esteem. One day, at the end of my spiel, as I was packing up to leave, a girl came to me in tears. 'A group of kids make fun of me all the time,' she said. 'Can you make them stop?' I looked at her and my heart just sank. I knew there had to be a better way to get kids to see differently."

When Cavanaugh reflected on his years as a camp counselor and community youth director, he realized that the most life-changing experiences had been the result of intensive retreats employing a wide variety of learning styles. So, in 1988, he replaced his motivational speeches with a series of one-day retreats designed to teach elementary, middle, and high school students how to incorporate the values of kindness, honesty, courage, integrity, and respect into their daily lives.


"I took the concept of a week-long retreat and compacted it into an eight-hour structured and choreographed public school day," Cavanaugh noted.

Each retreat is preceded by a training session, during which Youth staff members train a cadre of volunteer group leaders. Those leaders-in-training can include older Frontiers students and adult community members, such as retirees, local businesspeople, and school bus drivers. The depth of the volunteer training depends on the resources of the particular school, according to Cavanaugh. "Some schools bring us in for a full-day of training and some pay for only a one-to-three hour training session. Some schools don't have the time or financial resources to do dedicated training, so we do a crash course for 20 minutes immediately before the retreat. Some schools have peer mentors or mediators that have been going through year-long training within the school."

The retreats themselves provide a high-energy day of music, singing, laughter, skits, presentations, and interactive small and large group segments lasting 20 minutes each. "We say it is a day where MTV meets Aristotle," Cavanaugh laughed. "There is something for everybody, whether their learning style is auditory, kinetic, or visual. If you don't like small group, don't worry, in 20 minutes it's done. If you don't like singing, don't worry, in 20 minutes it's done. If you don't like the pizza, you'll be doing something else in 20 minutes!"

"We structure our retreats to implement some of the 40 Developmental Assets that the Search Institute has determined young people need to grow into healthy productive adults," Cavanaugh said. Our retreat topics are very specific -- the virtues of respect, courage, and kindness."


Image Youth Frontiers, an America's Promise commitment maker, is based in Minnesota, but the company has conducted retreats as far away as Montana. (An America's Promise commitment maker is an organization that has signed on as a partner to America's Promise and made a commitment to fulfill the organization's Five Promises.

"We started several years back with 'Respect Retreats'in high schools," Cavanaugh told Education World. "For elementary school kids, the virtue of kindness is more developmentally appropriate. Eighth grade boys usually don't want to hear about kindness or respect. They love hearing about courage though. So at that level we talk about courage -- the courage to be kind and respectful. The themes and activities are different [for different grade levels], but the goal is the same, to get kids to treat one another better.

During the courage retreat at Breck School in Minneapolis, for example, retreat leaders started out talking with eighth graders about fears. Then the leaders tried to use that discussion to show how people can be courageous every day, said Cara Sandberg, a volunteer student retreat leader.

"Each student came up with a personal act of courage, like 'I am not going to tease my little sister,' or 'I am going to stand up for that kid who gets pushed around in the hallway,'" Sandberg, a recent Breck graduate, told Education World. "I watched this entire grade come to a consensus that they needed to make a change in their relationships. It was very powerful. That class is the best freshman class I've seen in my time at Breck School!"

"We don't try to get kids to like one another," Cavanaugh noted. "We teach kids that even if they're not friends, they don't have to be enemies. And you know what? They get that! They want to stop hating each other because the energy and stress involved is so destructive."


If the growth of the non-profit Youth Frontiers organization is any indicator, communities and schools see such improvement in school climate as a legitimate and important goal. In 1999, Cavanaugh says, Youth Frontiers sponsored 200 retreats. In 2002, the organization expected to sponsor more than 400 retreats. According to Cavanaugh, the overall quality of the program also brings schools back year after year. The Youth Frontiers school retention rate is 96 percent, he says.

"As president, I am trying to create a non-profit company operating on sound business principles -- a venture non-profit," Cavanaugh explained. "From questionnaires used in schools, to our marketing pieces, to the clothing we wear on retreats, to our office design and technology, we demonstrate a strong commitment to quality and internal culture."


"We'd be hard-pressed to not have the Youth Frontiers program," said Mandy Little, chemical education resource and ninth grade advisor for Irondale High School in New Brighton, Minnesota. "It is part of our school."

Irondale High has been hosting Youth Frontiers retreats for 11 years, and the entire ninth grade class attends the Respect Retreat. "Joe holds their attention," Little told Education World. "It is the right combination of music and fun, with wonderful messages interjected along the way. My student leaders are so committed they want to do it four years in a row!"

Seventy-five percent of Irondale's graduating seniors attend the voluntary Senior Retreat. "The day brings closure," Little said. "Kids think about the value of friendship, making amends, and where they are going. The retreat, one of the last days the students will be together as a class, has a strong impact on them."

"Our mission as an organization," Cavanaugh said, "is to build communities by improving school climate. As the school goes, so goes the community. Our vision in the next three-to-ten years is to change the way young people treat each other in every public school in America."


  • The Character Education Partnership (CEP) is a nonpartisan coalition of organizations and individuals dedicated to developing moral character and civic virtue in our nation's youth as one means of creating a more compassionate and responsible society. CEP collects and distributes information on educational and community programs and awards recognition to schools and a district that exemplify CEP's Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education.
  • Character Education - Free Resources for Teachers includes teaching guides for K-12, an extensive web guide to other resources for teachers, and a mailing list of character education organizations.
  • The Character Counts national nonpartisan organization offers free teaching tools, including teaching and activity ideas, making ethical decisions, and a definition of the organization's six pillars of character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.