Connecting Vulnerable Youth

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School dropouts, arguably the most vulnerable youth group in the United States, are also a group for which there is no meaningful accountability.

Oh sure, assistant superintendents for school attendance and promotion along with an underfunded cadre of truancy staff worry about dropouts while these kids are still of school age. Once on the streets, however, these kids’ only connection to the mainstream is through a chaotic and precarious web of community youth programs, from street workers to faith ministers, and from large youth-serving agencies to small grass-roots organizations.

Each of these groups tries to “pull” dropouts back from the brink through incentives, GEDs, services, assessment, job training, pleas, prayers or probation. These efforts are typically aimed at the subset of relatively motivated school leavers who make their presence known to the youth workers. The others are what might be called in Latin America, “the disappeared.”

Efforts are popping up around the country to forge a more systematic response.

In the nation’s third-largest school district, Chicago, potential dropouts and their guardians are asked to sign a brutally frank form that discusses the consequences of dropping out, including jail, unemployment, low earnings and welfare dependency. This is a deliberately scary form – student signature required – that spells out in sad detail the consequences of this personal choice.

Some experts have ridiculed the form, saying the majority of Chicago’s dropouts, numbering around 56,000 a year, don’t call with news of their decision – the triggering mechanism for the form. Thus, the experts predict this new requirement will be ineffective. I am not so quick to dismiss an earnest attempt to confront an issue of such magnitude with a systematic strategy.

It has been reported that in 2001 more than 5 million 16- to 24-year-olds (15 percent of this population) were disconnected from both school and work.

But disconnection can be temporary or permanent, and even something in between. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation estimates that 2.8 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 (8 percent of all people in that age group) are at risk of permanent disconnection. This includes many dropouts who are unemployed or out of the labor force, with no means of support from spouses or partners.

One systemic innovation is on the horizon, at least in theory. Many school districts have developed or will develop student-testing numbers to attach to students as they progress from grade to grade and school to school, as part of the high-stakes testing and accountability game. What if these numbers became truly portable and were utilized by community groups that provide services under No Child Left Behind, or by any dropout prevention and recovery service? Wouldn’t these numbers constitute the basis of a real tracking system, bridging school and nonschool organizations, and introducing the genuine possibility of a true accountability mechanism?

The National League of Cities (Institute for Youth, Education and Families) and the Academy for Educational Development (Center for Youth Development and Policy Research) have just produced a crisp and useful “Municipal Leader’s Guide on Connecting Vulnerable Youth” (available at I scanned the report looking for best practices that met my particular interest in having a focus on the scale of the problem – that is, providing responses that go beyond often small-scale service programs for special groups.

I am not knocking the latter. We surely need to heed the call for alternative education options, special efforts for special groups of dropouts such as the homeless, youth aging out of foster care, unemployed dropouts and youthful offenders. These options make critical dents in the problem, but we need to think more about changes that can address the magnitude of the issue.

The report cites Boston and Trenton, N.J., cities that have tried to create collaborations among schools, police, churches and community-based organizations to intervene early and preventively through door-to-door outreach. Youth Today has covered these efforts extensively, and they do meet my test of active outreach going beyond small pockets of services.

Another example, aimed at all youth in a particular neighborhood, is the Youth Opportunity “one-stop” centers in Baltimore and other communities. However, these are slated for elimination in the White House’s 2005 budget proposal for the U.S. Department of Labor, so perhaps I should moderate my enthusiasm for these ambitious projects.

While counting is difficult – and we are looking at this in more detail – it appears that federally funded programs for out-of-school youth probably serve no more than 120,000 young people per year. This is just 4 percent of the Hewlett Foundation’s estimate of young people at risk of permanent disconnection.

We need to expand funding for these federally supported programs. In the context of these numbers, thinking at scale – that is, going beyond “making a dent in the problem” – becomes a moral imperative.

Andrew Hahn is professor at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. Contact: