Connecting the Data Dots to Better Serve Disconnected Youths

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Cross-system collaboration, caring adults and meaningful data analysis will help programs for disconnected youth succeed, grow and get funded, program and policy experts said at a recent panel discussion in Washington, D.C.

At the mid-December American Youth Policy Forum event, Leveraging Resources to Create Alternative Pathways to Education and Employment Training for Disconnected Youth, administrators of Youth Opportunity (YO!) Baltimore and the Philadelphia Youth Network joined a policy fellow to talk about what works – and what doesn’t work – in serving young people who aren’t in school, working or otherwise connected to community supports.

“If you want to tackle the issues of dropouts and out-of-school youths fully, every city has to have a number of things in place,” said panelist Andrew O. Moore, senior fellow with the D.C.-based National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education and Families.

First, Moore said, disconnected youth must be seen as a community concern. And early warning systems that integrate data from various systems – to detect, for instance, when youths are becoming academically estranged – can be used to intervene with at-risk youth before they fall off track. Parents and stakeholders alike need to set high, common aspirations, he added.

Demonstrating Success
Documenting results is essential, said Ernest F. Dorsey, division director of YO! Baltimore. After getting a five-year $44 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor in 2000, Dorsey said he set out to develop a way to assess and show outcomes. “We knew,” he said, “that folks were going to ask, ‘You got $44 million. What did you do with the money. What were the results?’ ”

Baltimore program officials compared YO! participants with non-participants and were able to document that the former had lower rates of teen pregnancy and recidivism, and increased wages and academic attainment. The findings are detailed in Changing Minds, Changing Lives: Baltimore’s Youth Opportunity Story, a 2006 report.

The YO! program is based on a “caring adult advocates” model, Dorsey said, citing data that show how much of a difference positive adult role models make in youths’ lives. In Baltimore, he said, these adults helped “young people navigate through the system and develop an education and, simultaneously, a career plan to be successful.”

Baltimore was able to stretch DOL funds for six years, and then continue YO! with city monies, in part because local officials could see its documented success, Dorsey said.  Former YO! providers, he added, still meet twice a year to share best practices and resource information and to build public awareness about the need to support at-risk, out-of-school youths.

Documenting the Problem
The Philadelphia Youth Network, an intermediary that connects youth with work and educational opportunities, was also able to document program effectiveness and leverage partnerships and funding to expand.

Jenny Bogoni, vice president of strategic partnerships for the organization, said the network began in 1999 with $6 million and a “vision to not just simply invest in programs and youth preparation, but to bring others to the table.” A decade later, she said, the organization has a $35 million program portfolio and serves 10,000 youths each year.

The network now runs two main programs, WorkReady Philadelphia and Project U-Turn. The former links youths to work experience, academic enrichment and college exposure, while the latter is a network-led citywide collaborative effort to publicize and develop strategies to address the city’s dropout crisis.

Like in Baltimore, program leaders saw the need to document how youth were faring across city systems, an effort that culminated in a report titled Unfulfilled Promise: The Dimensions and Characteristics of Philadelphia’s Dropout Crisis, 2000-2005. The report merged school district information with data from the juvenile justice and child protection systems – both of which had high numbers of youths who failed to graduate from high school – to show city and school officials what happened to kids as they grew up.

Bogoni said the report was instrumental in generating support from city and school leaders and other stakeholders. Through partnerships with the school district, private foundations and other entities, more than $73 million has been leveraged for Project U-Turn, she said, although the vast majority of it – $49 million – comes from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Bogoni said the network also benefited by being in one of five cities funded by the Youth Transitions Funders Group, which aimed to build the data-gathering capacity of organizations serving out-of-school youth and to improve their ability to build partnerships.

Feds Could Do More
The federal government should offer matching grants to enable innovative local organizations to share what they’re doing with other cities, Bogoni said.

Moore, though, said such matching funds have historically been limited. A more “immediate federal policy option,” he said, would be to invest directly in job creation through a revised Community Development Block Grant program that better connects out-of-school youths with training offered by local workforce investment boards, especially individuals experiencing high unemployment.

Recipients of federal youth jobs funding should also be measured by how well they promote education and community service, he said, and not just on how many youth fill job slots. Providers, Moore added, should do more to link youths coming out of the juvenile justice system to employment and training opportunities and expand services to youths older than age 18 so they have plenty of time to get back on track.