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What We Do

The John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at the Stanford Graduate School of Education partners with communities, researchers, and practitioners to produce evidence-based research to improve and strengthen the well-being of youth, inform policy and practice in the fields of education and youth development, and emphasize the importance of equity and capacity-building in youth-serving organizations. Named for the prolific thinker, innovator and activist John W. Gardner, the Gardner Center was founded in 2001 by Milbrey McLaughlin, the David Jacks Professor of Education and Public Policy (emerita). We seek to:

  • understand how a community as a whole—rather than any one agency or program—can support youth’s pathways to productive adulthood
  • engage with communities to help them identify the concerns most in need of solutions, distilling these challenges into researchable questions, and  building their capacity to make data-driven decisions
  • generate actionable knowledge through regular and iterative exchanges, fostering long-term relationships with community partners, and learning from them 
  • conduct research with Stanford faculty and other academic colleagues to inform public practice and policy in the youth sector

We focus our efforts on the youth sector policy areas of college, career, and civic readiness; families, communities, and schools; early childhood (0-8); out-of-school time; and health and wellness. 

What Is the Youth Sector?

If youth are to succeed in school and develop into successful adults, institutions and individuals throughout their communities must support them in coherent and connected ways. However, despite their common focus on youth, these entities are often disconnected from each other, resulting in unintended gaps or duplication of services and misaligned goals. The coordinated efforts of community-based organizations, health and human service agencies, parks and recreation, law enforcement, faith-based institutions, and schools are essential to better outcomes for youth. The Gardner Center calls this network of community resources the youth sector. The youth sector frames youth development in terms of the multiple groups, organizations, and institutions that together make up the contexts within and through which young people move from infancy to young adulthood.

Individual-Setting-System: A Tri-Level Approach

Understanding how to support positive youth development requires more than an understanding of individual outcomes. The Gardner Center uses a tri-level research framework, focusing on the interactions among the individual, setting, and systems level, and the ways that changes at one level directly connect to the others. A comprehensive tri-level framework includes:

  • Individual-level factors that address a young person’s personal progress and outcomes
  • Setting-level factors that focus on the resources and opportunities provided by a program or a project for youth
  • System-level factors that address existing policy and youth development infrastructure in a district, locality, or state

This tri-level perspective assumes that changes in system-level factors will stimulate and support (or frustrate) changes in settings, which in turn will (or will not) lead to positive changes in youth outcomes.