Let’s Apply What Works For Disconnected Youth

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Tightening budgets and plummeting employment rates are particularly troubling for those of us who work with youth who have dropped out or are on the margins of school. Both developments signal a reduction in the investment that our field needs and in employment opportunities for young adults. Down times, however, can offer opportunities to develop and test new approaches on a small scale that can be expanded when investment flows again.

Fortunately, research and on-the-ground experience give us clear direction about how to shape our field in the coming years, and clarify the historical argument between whether disconnected youth should first pursue more jobs or more education. In their study of the changing American workplace, Teaching the New Basic Skills, economists Richard Murnane and Frank Levy compellingly demonstrate that what will enable young people to earn reasonable wages are higher job skills associated with more education. Their findings have been reaffirmed in subsequent research.

Even better, youth work practices that draw on these findings are demonstrating encouraging results.

In New York City, transfer high schools, serving youth who have been on the margins and are likely to drop out, combine small, personalized settings, work experiences and demanding academics. They are producing much higher graduation rates among youth who come from high schools where the rates were as low as 19 percent. (See “Can Nonprofits and Schools Share Power?”April 2007.)

Community Education Pathways to Success, a program serving youth who have left school with low academic skills, has produced sharp skill improvements while moving young people toward GEDs. Former dropouts who have been in the program are showing encouraging retention rates in college.

In these efforts, work is an engagement strategy rather than solely a terminal outcome for students. Young people participate in internships and projects. Staff members find that these activities challenge young people and increase their commitment to the overall program.

Remarkably, however, much funding for youth who have left school without graduating continues to focus on short-term preparation for jobs or to exclude those youth most in need. Most dropouts leave school with skill levels that make them ineligible for General Educational Development (GED) preparation programs. Nevertheless, the federal Workforce Investment Act and GED programs enroll youth who are most ready for work or their GEDs – in effect limiting access for those who leave school with low skills. For these young people, there is little investment and few tested models.

We have known for at least a decade that success in the labor market requires strong skills in literacy, math, communication and the ability to make and test simple hypotheses. Researcher Andrew Sum’s recent studies in Boston and Illinois highlight the challenge: employment, earning rates and civic participation among youth who have dropped out continue to plummet, despite extensive investments. The problem stems partly from economic factors that youth workers can do little about. But we can focus our work on, and encourage funders to invest in, the right stuff: programs for the neediest youth that address the educational and work skills without which young people cannot advance to reasonable wages.

Does this mean that no young adult should follow a short route to work? Some, for such reasons as having a child to support, need income now. But most young adults can be re-engaged in learning, often in combination with work experiences and training. We should not forget that more education also promotes both civic participation and fuller enjoyment of some of life’s pleasures, such as reading.

An examination of successful programs and schools shows that they have three building blocks: research-based youth development principles, rigorous instruction designed for young adults, and highly structured student counseling and social supports. Getting these components right is necessary but not sufficient. High-quality implementation is essential. That means such basics as a strong and well-trained staff, good data systems and smart execution.

For those who would like to look more deeply at the promising models and emerging practices cited here, information is available on the work with overage and under-credited youth at the New York Department of Education (http://schools.nyc.gov/Offices/OMPG/default.htm), Good Shepherd Services (www.goodshepherds.org) and the Youth Development Institute (ydinstitute.org). YDI has produced these reports about this work: Promising Practices in Working with Young Adults, College Access and Success for Young Adult Learners; Building a Better Bridge: Helping Young Adults Enter and Succeed in College; and The Dream of College: Helping Struggling Students Succeed in College. The reports were developed from observations and discussions with young people, staffers and organizational leaders, including both school partnerships and freestanding community-based organizations.

Peter Kleinbard is executive director of the Youth Development Institute, based in New York. Contact: pkleinbard@ydinstitute.org.