by Linda Cantu, MA  • IDRA Newsletter • October 1997

Dr. Linda CantuIn 1984, the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) began the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program in five schools in San Antonio, all of which serve high populations of low­income students and high percentages of Hispanic students. In that first year, 50 tutors and 150 tutees participated in the program.

The program has grown dramatically over the last 13 years. Today, the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program has more than 1,000 tutors and 3,000 tutees and can be found in more than 90 schools (secondary and elementary) in 17 cities. During the last 13 years, the program has impacted more than 33,000 children, families and educators.

How Does It Work?

The Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program is a cross­age tutoring program developed to assist students who are considered at high risk of dropping out of school. Students who drop out of school are often characterized by underachievement in the basic skills, poor performance in class, manifestations of a deteriorating self­image, high rates of absenteeism, and an often pressing need to assist their families financially. The Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program was developed to target these students specifically.

The program, which initially began in San Antonio, Texas, has proven highly successful in keeping Hispanic youth from dropping out of school. The program has positively influenced the lives of Hispanic, African American, Asian, Anglo and Native American students in the continental United States, Puerto Rico and Birmingham, England.

The program’s premise is that when an underachieving older student is given the responsibility of tutoring a younger student, both students succeed. Evaluation of the program over the last 13 years supports this premise. As a result of the program, tutors improve their personal academic achievement, school attendance, self­image, responsibility toward school work and attitude toward being responsible for their siblings.

Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program tutors, students who the schools termed “at-risk,” tutor younger children (or tutees) in reading, writing, math, spelling and other subjects. They also write newsletters, prepare lessons, chaperone field trips and act as role models for younger children.

The structured plan of the program makes it easy for schools to implement. The program sets aside one class period within the school day. During this period, students tutor at the elementary school four days a week and on the fifth day, the tutors meet as a class. In this class the tutors learn tutoring and positive disciplining strategies, and they participate in personal awareness activities.

These activities are part of the teacher coordinator guides and tutor workbooks provided by IDRA. In addition, a program administrator’s guide, a secondary principal’s guide, elementary principal’s guide and evaluation guide are provided to assist in successfully implementing the program.

Effect on Students and Schools

As I travel to schools and visit different program sites, I often talk with students, teachers and parents who share incredible stories about how the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program has positively impacted their lives. The program has many such stories, but one in particular comes to mind.

A year ago a teacher shared a story with IDRA about one of the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program tutors who most affected her opinion of the program. In brief, a tutor, “Sylvia,” had been placed in her elementary classroom. Sylvia was “a shy girl” and wanted to work with only one tutee instead of the three given to most tutors. The teacher agreed to allow her to tutor just one tutee. The elementary teacher asked Sylvia’s teacher coordinator about her and learned that Sylvia’s grades were low, she was often truant and she had twice tried to take her own life. This was a tutor who needed a great deal of support. Happily, the teacher found that as the young girl worked in the program “she blossomed before her eyes.” Within the school year, Sylvia began working with three tutees. She told the teacher that she was finally having a good year and how much she enjoyed coming to her class.

Over the years, the teacher often wondered what had happened to Sylvia. Five years later, the teacher encountered her again while attending a scholarship presentation. The teacher said she heard “her Sylvia’s” name called again and again as the she received several scholarships and awards that totaled up to $42,000. After the presentations, she approached Sylvia and told her how proud she was of her. Sylvia replied:

    “I am so happy you’re here tonight. A lot of this had to do with the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program because I saw kids having a hard time, and I felt that I could help them. I want to be able to help other students. If it wasn’t for the program, I don’t know where I’d be right now.”

Having observed such a positive outcome for her tutor, the teacher now requests a Coca-Cola Valued Youth tutor in her class every year.

Many other stories, though seemingly less dramatic, demonstrate how the program can help turn students’ lives around. While visiting a school a year ago, a tutor was asked to help me carry some of my personal things to the car. While we were talking the tutor said:

    “I’m a Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program tutor. Before, everyone thought I was a troublemaker. I was always getting into trouble with my teachers and whenever there was a problem between me and another student I always got blamed. I used to be bad. Now I’m a Coca-Cola Valued Youth tutor and I never get into trouble anymore. My teachers and even the principal think I’m doing a great job and that I’m more responsible. My grades have gotten better and I come to school everyday. The Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program teacher always asks me to be her assistant.”

This tutor was so happy with himself as he told me his story. I often hear stories from teachers, counselors and principals, but here was a student who in his own words felt he had become a better student. His story allowed me to see and hear the benefits of the program firsthand.

Teachers and administrators also tell stories about how their own attitudes toward students have improved. I often talk to elementary teachers and administrators who initially had doubts about having tutors who were themselves struggling with their academics tutoring children in their school.

During a visit to a school last year, I spoke with a principal and counselor who had voiced doubts about the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program tutors coming into their school. They were going to be one of two schools receiving tutors from the middle school. They chose to take only five tutors.

Just two months into the program, they began to see the benefits for their tutees. The counselor told me that he would love to have more tutors during the following year. He said he had thought that the tutors would cause problems in his school. Many had come from that same elementary school and were labeled “troublemakers.” To his surprise, the tutors took their tutoring responsibilities seriously. They were polite, reliable and went straight to work everyday. On the few occasions when he did need to correct their behavior, he stated he only had to bring it to the tutors’ attention once and the tutor immediately responded to his request.

The principal and the counselor stated that they had a group of college students from a local community college also tutoring in their school but felt the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program tutors were more responsible and worked better with the elementary children.

Making a Difference

Is it true that there are students in our schools who teachers find more difficult to value than others? The answer is yes. Students who are considered at risk of dropping out of school are those who have poor attendance, create discipline problems in school, are minority and come from disadvantaged socio­economic backgrounds. These students are often ignored or treated negatively by teachers, school administrators and even their peers. These are the students in most need of our support and encouragement.

Most tutoring programs allow only the academically successful students to tutor. In the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program, students who have low academic achievement are selected to participate and are as successful in tutoring as are those students who are considered high academic achievers in their schools. The program has consistently kept 98 percent of Valued Youths in school and learning.

The Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program helps students become more personally responsible. It also helps them improve their academic achievement and school attendance. As a result of these improvements, the tutors begin to perceive themselves in a more positive light. They feel proud of the work they do and the contribution they make to another student’s learning. In essence, through their actions and caring, the tutors become role models to the younger students. These students who were once on the verge of dropping out are seen differently by the school as well. They are recognized for the leaders they are becoming.

Linda Cantu is a research associate in IDRA’s Division of Research and Evaluation and is also the project director for IDRA’s Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program. Comments and questions may be directed to her by e­mail at

[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]