Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health

Empowering our Future: Harnessing the Transformative Power of Schools

Lead Organization

Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health

Boston, Massachusetts, United States


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To learn more about – or provide significant funding to – this project, please contact Lever for Change.

Project Summary

Adolescence is a critical period of development that socially, economically, mentally, and physically sets the foundation for adulthood. However, deep-seated inequities across racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds and, in many settings, across gender prevent large numbers of adolescents from reaching their full potential.What if we build an environment specifically designed to help adolescents thrive? What if we leverage the entire community—including and especially adolescents—to develop this environment?Our solution comprises a package of evidence-based components to target and reduce these inequities: a whole-school intervention to foster more supportive and inclusive school environments; alleviation of financial and other barriers to school attendance; and development of community clubs to reach adolescents outside school. Adolescents will play an active role in development, implementation, and evaluation of the intervention, which will simultaneously empower them to direct positive changes in their communities across their lifespan.

Problem Statement

There are currently nearly 1.8 billion young people 10–19 years of age globally, the largest generation of adolescents ever. This number is expected to rise, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. While these young people have tremendous potential to improve the world they will inherit, many face deep-seated social and environmental inequities that prevent them from acquiring key emotional, cognitive, and economic skills during this critical developmental period. Globally, there are inequities in access to an empowering and supportive school environment, across socioeconomic status, racial–ethnic background, rural–urban context, and gender. Financial barriers including school fees, uniforms, inability to access school meals, and the opportunity cost of not working cause many low-income students to miss school or drop out entirely. Girls are more likely to drop out of school due to sexual harassment, fear of being assaulted while in transit to or at school, and lack of appropriate facilities for menstrual hygiene. Early disengagement from school not only reduces adolescent capabilities but also increases risk of health problems later in life.The etiologies of inequities are entrenched and multifaceted. As such, a holistic intervention is needed, including a culturally sensitive school environment, appropriate and inclusive job-readiness curricula, and elimination of financial and other barriers. Previous interventions to empower adolescents through health literacy and education have tended to be vertical and sector-specific, failing to address multiple levels of the adolescent ecosystem and excluding adolescents from the development process, often allowing the most vulnerable to slip through the cracks.

Solution Overview

Our solution is an evidence-based package of interventions to promote the health, education, and social development of adolescents 10–19 years of age at five locations, using schools as primary partners. Our solution aims to increase school attendance, retention, and performance; improve nutrition and mental and physical health; reduce adolescent pregnancy; and increase job-readiness, using a stepped-wedge trial at each location to evaluate progress.While our solution will be tailored to the unique needs of each of our locations, all interventions will operate under the following guiding principles.A.School climate—encompassing safety (physical, emotional, and social), academic support, and cultural inclusivity—is fundamental to well-being.At each location, we will implement multicomponent interventions at three levels (whole school, groups, and individuals) to enhance problem-solving and social skills, promote physical and mental health, and increase inclusivity and cultural sensitivity.B.Schools can be partners to engage adolescents who have dropped out of the school system. To reach adolescents who are not currently in school, we will develop a system of clubs where adolescents can socialize, participate in peer-led educational activities, and receive academic tutoring and job readiness training. The clubs will target adolescents who are both within and outside the school system and will facilitate second-chance students returning to school. C.Financial barriers prevent underprivileged adolescents from reaching their full potential.We will introduce location-specific mechanisms to remove financial barriers to academic engagement, including cash transfers conditional on school attendance or provision of needs-based scholarships for tutoring and test preparation.

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