Teen Leadership Academy (TLA)

The TLA is a training and skills building program for youth. Although it is not currently an evidence-based program, the data we have gathered thus far suggests that the TLA is effective in engaging and creating behavior change in youth, promoting leadership, improving community engagement, and increasing resiliency factors among TLA participants.

The TLA consists of three, one-day training/skills building sessions for youth that occur over the course of the academic school year. Selected participants in our program also attended a national youth leadership conference (CADCA National Leadership Forum). The TLA sessions focus on developing leadership skills, fostering advocacy skills, and building self-reliance. The TLA includes behavioral change modules which deliver education about behavioral health and substance abuse to youth, along with supporting youth through active engagement in a community improvement project.

The community improvement project involves the youth working to change a negative condition that they have identified in their school or community environments. TLA participants work actively on their projects throughout the year, and TLA facilitators meet regularly with the youth to review and support the advancement of their project. At the end of the year participants’ projects are highlighted at the TLA Symposium, a community-wide meeting and graduation ceremony during which the TLA participants present their respective projects and outcomes to community members, leaders and stakeholders, and are recognized for their contributions.

The primary focus of TLA is to take students that are generally considered "middle of the road" in areas such as academics, social status, and athletics, and provide them with opportunities to excel in other areas by developing solid leadership and community advocacy skills. By providing these students with a combination of teachable moments, leadership and advocacy skills, positive reinforcement, and developmentally and culturally relevant programming, we set them up for personal success that not only benefits them, but the community at large.

Graduates of TLA not only have a newfound sense of self-worth, they also have the confidence to share their successes with their peers. The individual that chose to remain at the side of the road during an important project or event now often finds themselves at the forefront of similar situations.

The Teen Leadership Academy Program

Goals of TLA upon implementation:

  1. To assist youth in gaining the leadership and advocacy skills to create change in their desired communities.
  2. To empower students to become leaders and become active in local issues.
  3. To provide students with the capacity to change the community environment for the better.

Identifying Interested Students

  1. Explain the program to school district administration and teachers. Ask them to nominate students for participation in TLA.
  2. Schools then provide a verbal and written description of the program to interested students and students' parents. Provide your contact information to allow students and parents to contact you with any questions.
  3. Contact interested students and explain in more detail the purpose of the program.
  4. Obtain consent from parents for students to participate in the program

Conducting the TLA

In creating the TLA, our facilitators met and devised a curriculum that focuses on social action, leadership, and advocacy skills. We call these "Change Maker Skills."
There are three days of training, plus an additional day for the TLA Symposium. Each day has a different and specific focus. We intertwine impact and sustainability into our training each day as well.

Day 1: Social action and youth advocacy
Day 2: Leadership/teamwork skill building
Day 3: Individual/team strengths
Day 4: Communication, conflicts, symposium

Assisting with youth projects

Selecting a topic:

Each school has a team of students that participate along with an adult mentor. During Day 1, the students participate in mapping out their communities. What is going well? What needs improvement? What is lacking in their community? What are the underlying factors?

From there the teams further dissect the issues and determine which they will address for their project. The group discussion addresses impact, importance, sustainability, and readiness to change. By the end of this discussion, the teams typically have a topic selected.

Creating an action plan:

Youth then put together an action plan to address the identified issue. They choose the steps, create a timeline, assign jobs, and determine an accountability plan. Here is where the real work begins.

Putting the plan into action:

The students and their adult mentor return to their schools to begin working on the project. TLA Facilitators provide the students with guidance and encouragement throughout this process.

Ensuring success

In order for the TLA program to be successful there are several criteria that should be met.

  1. There should be a system of carefully thought out Action Plans that focus on sustainability as well as program impact.
  2. A rural lifestyle, in combination with a high poverty rate, make staying connected with students difficult. However, communication and student support are both vital parts of the program, and every opportunity to maintain those elements should be implemented. The student's ability to access internet-based tools at school can help you in your quest to stay connected. Social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are also ways that you can provide the youth in your community with the ability to reach out to you at any given time.
  3. Inevitably a time for change(s) in policy will arrive as the program progresses. This is a crucial moment for any organization or program.
  4. Policy changes need to be carefully thought out, agreed upon, and built on evidence-based practices. There is no room in this process for hidden or private agendas, and decisions should be based on what will make the program a success.
  5. Facilitator trainings are not only recommended, but they are essential to the survival of any program. Trainers not only need to be able to teach curriculum, they need to be able to model behavior.

Training for trainers, policy management, and modeling behavior help ensure the longevity of a highly beneficial program

Capacity building/stakeholder engagement

Capacity development is a major part of the TLA program. Facilitators, school staff, and adult mentors need to have buy-in regarding the program, as well as receive continuous support for their efforts from the community at large. This can be accomplished by simply talking to people about the program curriculum, encouraging community partners to actively participate in programming, and provide open invitations to the general public to attend events such as the TLA Symposium.


Providing training for school personnel in each high school in the county to serve as a TLA facilitator has helped to ensure that the program will continue after members of the ICAA and Rusk County Youth Council are no longer involved. Continuous engagement with community stakeholders and partners has been an essential aspect of sustainability for this program, as outlined above. Encouraging community and stakeholder attendance at the annual TLA Symposium has been beneficial to the sustainability of the program, as the participants’ presentations regarding their community projects have provided powerful and inspiring evidence of the benefits of the program. In addition, an annual tradition of a “data retreat” between members of the ICAA, the school district, law enforcement, and other community programs has allowed for ongoing assessment, outcome review, and recognition of the community level impact of the TLA and other interventions, and fostered continued high level support.

Looking toward the future: Peer led training

Engaging students in the program is just the first step. By enlisting the help of TLA alumni, peer led training can provide additional support for the program. Also, utilizing TLA members as trainers not only bolsters their confidence, but also reinforces what they themselves have learned.

Additional advantages to peer led instruction include, an enhanced comfort level that stems from learning from a classmate rather than an instructor, a greater understanding of learned materials that are conveyed in a similar generational dialogue, more one on one learning opportunities, increased interactive learning, fiscal responsibility, and sustainable programming.

In addition to becoming peer leaders with other high school students, the program also includes training TLA graduates to become leaders of the TLA program for middle school youth. Offering a TLA program to younger students has the potential to encourage earlier development of leadership and advocacy skills, cast a wider net for community wide change, and broaden the impact of youth leadership programming, while also continuing to enhance leadership skills for TLA graduates.

If possible, it can be greatly beneficial to open youth leadership programming to the community at large. In Rusk County, TLA graduates formed a community-wide youth leadership group, which they named “We Are Change” (WAC). WAC is youth led and youth driven, enabling not only TLA graduates to further develop their leadership and advocacy skills, but also to mobilize and empower all interested youth in the community to be agents of positive social change.


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(877) 607-5280

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