Plugging In Disconnected Youth

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The statistics can be depressing: One-third of all Americans drop out of school. Only half of African-American, Latino and American Indian youth graduate from high school. About 15 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds – some 3.8 million people – are neither working nor attending school, a number that grew by 700,000 from 2000 to 2004.

Here are some results: Three-quarters of state prison inmates and 59 percent of federal inmates are high school dropouts. Each year, dropouts cost the nation more than $260 billion in lost wages, taxes and productivity.

But don’t despair, say the authors of “Whatever It Takes: How Twelve Communities Are Reconnecting Out-of-School Youth,” who cite these statistics in their report, released in February by the Washington-based American Youth Policy Forum.

Nancy Martin and Samuel Halperin document how collaborations of public, private and nonprofit agencies in a dozen metropolitan areas are serving disconnected youth with everything from charter schools and internships to arts projects and environmental conservation.

“There are a lot of folks who have been trying to concentrate on, ‘How big is the problem?’ ” Halperin says. “Collectively, it’s a pretty dramatic story. We all pay a high price in terms of crime, welfare, unemployment, teen pregnancy, you name it.”

The problem is hardly new, but the needs of disconnected youth – and thus the needs of programs that serve them – have changed significantly in recent decades.

The nation first began seriously trying to grapple with its population of disconnected youth during the Great Depression. In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt created the National Youth Agency, a combination of job training, welfare and education designed to help youth stay in school and to help dropouts learn employment skills. (See “How FDR’s New Deal for Youth Got Decked,” Jan. 2004.)

The agency offered part-time employment for youth in school and a full work program for those out of school and unemployed (mostly ages 18 to 24), including thousands who lived at NYA camps. They worked on everything from raising chickens and making clothes to building youth centers and submarines. President Lyndon Johnson later called the NYA, which was eliminated during World War II, the forerunner of such programs as Job Corps and Upward Bound.

Job Corps was founded during another time of great social upheaval – 1965 – and changed over time. When the program was launched, “the term ‘vocational training’ was not even mentioned,” says John Douglas, a retired regional director of Job Corps. “We thought that if you gave kids three square meals, taught them good work habits, that’s all that would be necessary to make them employable.”

JobCorps realized that such youth need reading and math skills, as well as a marketable trade. By the mid-1990s, it began to emphasize earning a high school diploma and established local industry councils to make sure the trades being taught remained relevant to the economy, Douglas says.

The need for such adjustments was emphasized in a 2005 report by the New York-based Academy for Educational Development (AED), which said youth today face a very different world from high school dropouts of a generation ago. The sharp decline in manufacturing jobs in recent years, the huge growth in technology and “knowledge-based” industries, the globalization of trade and the outsourcing of jobs have created more job instability and less economic mobility, the report said.

“Skills matter much more in the labor market than they ever did before,” Harry J. Holzer, visiting fellow at the Washington-based Urban Institute, said at a panel discussion there in March about reconnecting disconnected young men.

Helping these youth is also more complicated than ever. “There are no models yet that people say we can replicate in terms of dealing with this population,” says Evelyn Fernandez-Ketcham, executive director of the New Heights Neighborhood Center, one of the three programs profiled in the AED report. “Dropping out has never happened at this rate and for so many different reasons. … We no longer have factories where they can go work. It’s a different time. It’s a very different time.”

The academy’s report, “Young Adult Capacity Initiative: Three Case Studies,” stresses that disconnected youth need to finish their education, learn basic skills, find jobs, and learn the attitudes and skills needed to keep those jobs.

The co-authors of “Whatever It Takes” recommend expanding proven national programs like YouthBuild USA, JobCorps, Jobs for America’s Graduates and the National Guard’s Youth Challenge, while infusing the successful practices of alternative educators into school districts.

The federally funded Youthbuild program has also evolved since its start in 1990. It has ramped up its emphasis on high school diplomas by founding 40 schools, 28 of them charter schools, among its 226 locations, says Tim Cross, chief operating officer of YouthBuild USA. As a result, he says, judges have increasingly sent youth to Youthbuild programs as an alternative to incarceration; 40 percent of YouthBuild participants are adjudicated.

But while federal appropriations for Job Corps have remained stable ($1.6 billion in 2006), other jobs programs serving youth have lost federal funding in recent years. The cuts from 2005 to 2006 include YouthBuild (from $61.5 million to $50 million), Youth Training through the Workforce Investment Act (from $986 million to $950 million) and One-Stop Career Centers (from $98 million to $81.7 million.)

“Whatever It Takes” says that federal investment in “second-chance” education programs fell from $15 billion in the late 1970s to $3 billion (adjusted for inflation) today.

Following are several agencies that have been hailed as models for serving disconnected youth. Three were profiled in “Whatever It Takes,” and the New York program was profiled in the AED report.

East Bay Conservation Corps
Oakland, Calif.
(510) 992-7800  

The Approach: An education and job training program with an environmental emphasis that works to build skills in academics, communication, citizenship, employability and life skills.

President Joanna Lennon has infused the corps with her “civitas” philosophy, aiming to empower young people to be well-educated, engaged citizens who want to improve their own lives and those of people around them.

“In a society like ours, which is made up mostly of immigrants, and the demographics are constantly changing, we’d better find a way to find some common ground,” she says. “It’s more than just enabling young people to make money.”

Small class sizes ensure students receive plenty of attention, Lennon says. “Staff know each kid and what’s happening to him or her. For a lot of kids, it’s like the home they never had.

“There are high expectations, and they’re pushed to do things that no one’s ever expected them to do or pushed them to do. It’s not rocket science.”

The corps is part of a shrinking network of Oakland-based youth organizations, such as the Youth Employment Partnership, that refer youth back and forth among themselves, says Michele Clark, executive director of the YEP.

“Years ago, it was quite an extensive group” of agencies, Clark says. “In this funding climate, unless you are large and diversified, it’s very hard for you to continue to offer work force services at any significant level.”

History and Organization: Founded by Lennon in 1983, the corps has evolved from a youth service and conservation organization to a more comprehensive educational program for youth of many ages.

High school students work in the field from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, then attend classes from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and all day Friday. Teachers direct service-learning projects, while student-staff teams make sure the projects are both academically challenging and relevant to students’ lives.

Corps members participate in community service projects in Alameda and Contra Costa counties as well as fee-for-service projects in conservation, vegetation management and recycling for park districts, fire departments and other municipal entities.

Youth Served: Youth ages 17 and up participate in the Corpsmember Program, which encompasses a charter high school of about 100 students, and youth development, field operations and recycling programs.

The corps estimates that half of the Corpsmembers have been in the judicial system. Many are former foster youth and some are homeless, Lennon says. The corps has partnerships with other organizations to help youth with some of their needs.

Staff: About 150 employees, including the staff of an elementary school and high school that the corps operates, along with site supervisors, work project coordinators and other managers.

Funding: The annual budget is about $8.5 million, $3 million of which is generated through fee-for-service programs aimed at municipalities and other local taxing districts. The remainder comes primarily from AmeriCorps, state funding for the corps’ schools, and the state Department of Conservation.

Indicators of Success: The number of graduates from the high school rose from 22 in the 2002-03 school year to 38 in 2004-05, with four more earning GEDs. Corpsmember youth used to stay an average of five to seven months, but now stay for an average of 101û2 months, the corps says.

Las Artes
Tucson, Ariz.
(520) 243-6741  

The Approach: Combines conventional “second-chance” elements like GED preparation and counseling to address personal development issues with a more colorful opportunity: to design and create mosaics, under the tutelage of local artists, that are placed around the city of Tucson and the surrounding metropolitan area.

The murals brighten up walls, bus stops and other public areas, and feature icons like Latino labor organizer Cesar Chavez, religious symbols, images of the Southwest, and epic-style retellings of cultural or historic events. The coursework and mosaic projects are designed to teach leadership and team-building skills.

“The work of the students has been incorporated into the public life,” says Nancy Martin, co-author of the “Whatever It Takes” report recently released by the American Youth Policy Forum. “It’s a hook that gets the young people into the GED program that they have, back into education.”

Las Artes is administered through the Pima County One-Stop Career Center, which provides a variety of services through its 22 programs. All receive funding through the same streams – from the U.S. Department of Labor, through the Workforce Investment Act, and from the county’s general fund.

History and Organization: Las Artes started as a summer employment and training program, then expanded to year-round and to offer GED preparation to out-of-school, out-of-work youth, says George Yubeta, who retired as program manager in late March.

After finding that not all the youths functioned at a high-school level academically, the program began a track for those at the 7th grade level, then another for those at the 5th grade level.

Youth participate in eight-week modules for 30 hours per week – all working toward a GED and most undertaking job preparation – while also getting trained in such areas as money management, first aid and CPR.

Each participant gets a $75 weekly stipend for achieving a 90 percent attendance rate, and for passing the Test of Adult Basic Education at the end.

Youth Served: The program says it has served 80 to 100 youth, ages 16 to 21, each year for more than a decade. Youth are recruited by word of mouth, community-based organizations and Pima County’s juvenile drug court. About 20 percent of participants have been adjudicated and 30 percent are teen parents, the agency says.

“Our main emphasis is the kids who are coming from the courts, they’re coming from the gangs, they’re coming from the barrios,” Yubeta says.

Staff: A program manager, two job developers, a lead artist, two arts instructors, a tutoring specialist, two GED instructors and an administrative assistant.

Funding: The overall budget for Las Artes is about $800,000, with $600,000 coming from the county’s Department of Community Resources and $200,000 from the U.S. Department of Labor through the Workforce Investment Act. A special two-year governor’s grant of $59,000, called Arizona Youth Works, supports up to 24 participants.

Indicators of Success: Ninety percent of participants complete the GED preparation, 85 percent obtain their GEDs, and 80 percent of those are either employed or in post-secondary education.

Youth Violence Reduction Partnership
Philadelphia, Pa.
(215) 686-4595  

The Approach: Kill or be killed. That’s the likely “before” outlook among participants in the Youth Violence Reduction Partnership, a consortium of 24 city agencies and nonprofits.

In a city with 350 to 400 homicides per year, with 100 to 130 of the victims under the age of 24, the cooperation and coordination among criminal justice and youth-serving organizations has been challenging but rewarding, says Deputy District Attorney John Delaney, who helps to coordinate the effort.

“If we can get them to their 25th birthday, their odds of getting to 75 skyrocket,” he says. “It was people understanding that if they want the results to be different, the process has to be different. You’re challenging bureaucracies, you’re challenging work rules, you’re challenging pay schemes. But staff have bought into it.”

Youth in the partnership have almost daily contact with adults from the participating agencies, perhaps most central of which are the street workers who visit the youth and check neighborhood “hot spots” for trouble. The continuous communication among street workers, police officers and probation and parole officers (who also visit with the youth in the usual course of their work) sets the effort apart.

History and Organization: Founded in 1999, the partnership involves the county District Attorney’s Office; the city departments of Juvenile Probation, Adult Probation, Police, Human Services and Health; the Philadelphia School District; and the nonprofit groups Philadelphia Safe and Sound, Public/Private Ventures and the Philadelphia Anti-Drug Anti-Violence Network.

The program relies heavily on its street workers, employed by the anti-violence network, who are generally residents of the youths’ neighborhoods, which were chosen for inclusion based on high juvenile crime statistics.

Most street workers are African-Americans in their late 20s and early 30s. They serve as friends and role models, providing transportation to job interviews, helping with family problems and lending an ear when a youth needs to talk.

Youth Served: The partnership has served more than 1,400 youth, 70 percent of whom are high school dropouts and most of whom were on probation or parole after a violence- or drug-related charge.

Staff: The partnership has 86 full-time staff: three top administrators, 12 juvenile probation officers with two supervisors, 24 adult probation officers with four supervisors, and 36 street workers with five supervisors. Police officers and others contribute time as well.

Funding: Delaney estimates a total budget of about $4 million for the partnership, with the money coming mostly from the state and federal governments (including a Juvenile Accountability Block Grant from the U.S. Department of Justice) as well as in-kind donations.

Indicators of Success: An analysis by Public/Private Ventures (“Alive at 25,” 2004) found that front-line staff had successfully supervised youth and helped many of them find jobs, education, counseling and training. The study found that youths remain in YVRP for six to nine months, on average. It said 40 percent of those who leave are employed at the time and another 29 percent of those who leave remain in school for at least three consecutive months.

Among the outcomes Delaney cites is expedited school enrollment for youth returning from juvenile detention. “We started an ‘on-deck’ list, with a date we know this kid is coming back” from detention, he says. Where it once took a month to re-enroll, now “if he comes home on Saturday, he ought to be re-enrolled in school on Monday and have a place where they, (a) expect him, and (b) know what he needs.”

New Heights Neighborhood Center
New York, NY
(212) 781-6388

The Approach: The New Heights Neighborhood Center works to build solid connections between out-of-school youth and local businesses in the Washington Heights/Inwood section of Manhattan, a heavily Dominican area. The New York-based Academy for Educational Development estimates that the community’s unemployment rate is 15 percent, about 5 percentage points above the city’s average.

Recognizing that shifts in the economy have steepened the climb for dropouts, the center provides youth with simultaneous GED preparation and job training, and it steers them to internships with local employers in growth industries like health, technology and banking.

Each participant develops an “individual service plan,” then enters a two-week job-readiness program that covers such topics as job and career interests, interview preparation and job searching.

Participants then begin 12-week internships, after which they receive help finding jobs or further education. They are referred to other agencies for services such as counseling about personal and family problems.

Primary employer partners have included Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, the 168th Street Armory and the 1199 Service Employees International Union.

“We pay the stipend, and the employer provides the experience,” says Executive Director Evelyn Fernandez-Ketcham. “The ultimate goal is that by the time they obtain the GED, they have also built their résumé and are much more prepared and ready to enter the world of work.”

High-school aged youth provide a greater challenge than those in their early 20s who have been out of school for a while, she says. “No one has really demanded of them to go out and get a job. Reality has not hit yet,” she says.

The center is part of the Young Adult Capacity Initiative, a project of the Youth Development Institute of the Fund for the City of New York, with funding through the Pinkerton, Clark and Kellogg foundations.

History and Organization: The center started in 1997 as a five-year pilot project overseen by the New York City Board of Education with funding from the U.S. Department of Labor. The school system still provides in-kind contributions of teachers’ time.

Youth Served: The program serves youth ages 17 to 24, mainly from the Washington Heights/Inwood community, with some from the South Bronx, Fernandez-Ketcham says. Most have been out of school two or three years.

The center draws youth primarily by word-of-mouth, she says, as well as its mass mailings.

Staff: Five full-time staff and two social work interns. The city schools provide teachers to work with youth at the center.

Funding: The center’s budget is about $300,000 a year, with another $300,000 in in-kind contributions, Fernandez-Ketcham says. The funding is primarily private. Top donors include the Pinkerton Foundation and the Fund for the City of New York.

Indicators of Success: The center took in 170 new young people in 2005, while about 100 more continued from previous years. Of the two groups, Fernandez-Ketcham says, 67 had been placed in jobs by the end of the year and 26 had received their GEDs, which typically takes about 18 months.

The GED numbers should rise this year, thanks to a partnership with the state Department of Education to bring GED testing to the site, so youths don’t have to wait the usual six to 12 months for the state to set a test date, Fernandez-Ketcham says.

“That’s very, very critical,” she says.