Youth Opportunities Still Knock

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Baltimore—When Ernest Dorsey spoke last month to 20 youths during their orientation at the Westside Youth Opportunity Community Center in a forlorn swath of this city, he assured them they could count on the center’s services for as long as they need.

“Our slogan around here is, ‘Once a YO member, always a YO member,’ ” said Dorsey, the first and only director of Youth Opportunity Baltimore (aka YO! Baltimore), a youth development program spawned by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Youth Opportunity Grants Initiative of 2000.

Watch: YO! Youth Opportunity Center
in Baltimore Struggles on Behalf of Dropouts
(a Youth Today original video by Jamaam Abdul-Alim)

But behind Dorsey’s assurances of longevity were unspoken worries about how long the center can continue as a resource for the incoming youths, most of whom are high school dropouts searching for a way to a better life.

“You can write the grants and be grandiose about how you’re going to sustain [the program], but when the rubber meets the road, it’s a hard thing to do,” Dorsey told a recent visitor. Fiscally, he figures, the program – which has shrunk from five centers serving almost 4,500 youths to two centers serving about 1,000 – is running on about a quarter-tank and falling.

YO! Baltimore’s experience is not unfamiliar among a network that includes 14 other original YO grantees, as they continuously search for resources to maintain an initiative that showed promising results, but lost its federal funding anyway.

Some observers see the decline of YO as a major federal policy mistake; others think it deserved its fate.

In an effort to build on lessons learned during the initial grant period, the surviving grantees – who now sustain themselves on blended sources of government and private funding – formed a support network called Communities Collaborating to Reconnect Youth. The title of its conference earlier this year in Baltimore revealed the members’ concerns: “Follow the Money: What You Need to Know to Compete in a New Federal Funding Environment.”

Based on the U.S. Department of Labor’s budget request to set up a competitive $200 million “innovation fund” for youth employment, that topic could not have been more relevant.

“Things have changed, and innovation may look different,” said Jane Oates, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration. “When we talk about innovation, we should constantly be looking at funding new ideas that have the same promise that the [Youth Opportunity grantees] had in early 2000.”

The original Youth Opportunity grantees’ federal funds disappeared after the initial five-year project expired, even though Youth Opportunity Grant Initiative: Management Information System Final Report, a federally sponsored data analysis by Decision Information Resources, concluded that the grantees had “clearly succeeded in reaching a substantial proportion of youths” in the target areas – mostly minority youths and many of them out-of-school youths from some of the poorest pockets in the nation.

Researchers also concluded that Youth Opportunity had done as well as any Workforce Investment Act-funded program in recruiting males – one of the most difficult populations to reach.

Without federal funding and thus no money to evaluate what happened when the national program ended, it’s hard to get a complete picture of what the end of federal funding meant to the youths the program served.

In some cases, the changes have been noted by the original grantees who still operate Youth Opportunity programs, or at least the vestiges of them. (See related stories on these pages.)

A billion-dollar baby

The program – which had served 92,000 youths, well over the federally established target of 52,000 – was a demonstration project and thus never became a permanent feature of the Department of Labor (DOL) budget, like the One-Stop Career Centers, Job Corps or the Registered Apprenticeship.

Whether that was good or bad depends on whom you ask.

A $1 billion initiative launched in 36 communities in 2000, the original grantees included organizations in 24 cities, from Tucson, Ariz., to Philadelphia, six rural communities, including Pine Bluff, Ark., and Camilla, Ga., and six Native American organizations, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, of Towaoc, Colo.

The grants ranged from $3.1 million to $43.8 million over five years. The Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, which still runs the program, mostly with city funds, got a $44 million grant, which it ultimately stretched over seven years.

A major thrust of the grants was to show that educational outcomes and economic prospects for youths in poor communities could be dramatically improved by providing the youths with a comprehensive mix of services, from mentoring to job readiness and life skills training, on a long-term basis. Grantees were also supposed to establish youth-focused centers staffed with youth development specialists. Lastly, they were supposed to establish partnerships with public, private and nonprofit entities, and leverage resources that would enable the services to continue after the initial grant period – a notion that one critic describes as “goofy.”

Lessons learned … or lost?

Linda Harris, director of Youth Policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C., believes it was wrongheaded to scrap Youth Opportunity and all of its lessons learned, particularly when it was originally envisioned as the “way you begin to transform the landscape of young people in distressed communities.”

She stands by what she wrote in a 2006 report called Learning from the Youth Opportunity Experience: Building Delivery Capacity in Distressed Communities – “Economically stressed communities can’t replace the loss of millions in federal funding.”

Noting that the original $1 billion or so federal provision for Youth Opportunity Grants was built on several years of prior demonstration funding and rooted in years of research on effective practice, Harris continued: “The abandonment of a well-thought-out, targeted intervention – particularly at a time when dropout rates among poor urban minority youth exceed 50 percent – should be reconsidered.”

Not everyone would support a reincarnation of the old Youth Opportunity.

Robert Taggart, a former Carter administration youth employment official who created the Quantum Opportunity Program (QOP), a forerunner to Youth Opportunity, opposes a revival. “They did a very poor job of replicating it,” Taggart said. “The features that held the [QOP] together, they let loose of all the features.”

He said evaluations showed the Youth Opportunity program had a limited impact compared with QOP, citing his program’s impact on raising high school graduation rates and college enrollment, while reducing out-of-wedlock births and crime. (See, “The Best Youth Program You Can’t Afford” at http://www.youthtoday.org.)

“It was a modest youth program that had modest effects,” Taggart said of Youth Opportunity, which he said offered less intensive services than QOP.

Struggling to place youths

Similar criticisms are contained in Decision Information Resources’ final report on YO.

“On a less positive note,” the report said, “most of the services that youths received were individually not that intensive, and an appreciable number of enrollees participated very little.”

The report also notes that while roughly 38 percent of the enrollees had gotten job placements, a similar amount had not been placed and stopped participating altogether.

Bob Rath, CEO of Our Piece of the Pie in Hartford, Conn. (one of the original Youth Opportunity grant sites), and chairman of the Communities Collaborating to Reconnect Youth network, is not surprised that both critics and supporters look at the YO evaluation and find ammunition for their cause.

“I understand why people look at the evaluations and draw different conclusions from evaluation findings,” Rath said, explaining that the initiative might have demonstrated better results if it had been sustained longer.

Rath counts the mere existence of the network of original Youth Opportunity grantees five years after the demonstration project ended as proof that the Youth Opportunity program was worthwhile.

“I think the fact that communities in this network have been able to sustain their programs – and in some places grow them – is sort of evidence that Youth Opportunity investments work,” Rath said.

Here in Baltimore and the surrounding area, perceptions vary about YO! Baltimore and its fellow former Youth Opportunity grantees throughout the nation.

“I give a lot of credit to the Youth Opportunity sites across the country for working with the hardest-to-serve youths,” said Edward DeJesus, founder and CEO of the Youth Development and Research Fund Inc., a Montgomery Village, Md.-based organization that provides research and training in youth development.

Despite YO! Baltimore’s claim that its program graduates earned higher wages than peers outside the program ($15,569 a year versus $10,792, according to recent figures), DeJesus says that’s not enough to persuade youths to invest a year or more of their time in a program. “YO! does show more earnings while many other programs do not, especially considering the population they are working with,” DeJesus said. “The point is: Who can live off $15,000 a year?”.

Despite the success stories that fill YO! Baltimore’s brochures about youths who furthered their education, got jobs and lined up better prospects, there have been recent signs that some of the training youths get through Youth Opportunity often leads to a dead end.

Joshua Harrold, director of the Workforce Development Division at the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development in Baltimore, noted how his organization provided a one-day forklift operator certification course for 60 youths last year, roughly three-fourths of whom were referred through YO! Baltimore.

As an incentive for the youths to put their training to use, Harrold offered $100 to any youth who got employment as a forklift operator. “I did not get anything back,” Harrold said, referring to calls from youths reporting they got hired. “They would have called me back” to get the $100.

Harrold concedes it’s difficult to determine whether the youths didn’t contact him because they didn’t search for a job or because they couldn’t find one. “As of late, I think a lot of that is the economy,” he said, regarding the lack of job placement in positions for which youths are trained through YO! Baltimore. “The people that have been laid off maybe have associates’ degrees or a bachelor’s and now are applying for jobs that used to be filled by people with high school or lower education.”

Dorsey, the YO! Baltimore director, faults the Chesapeake Center for not lining up employment.

“That’s not how we do training,” Dorsey said.

Harrold, whose organization occasionally competes for funding with YO! Baltimore, had high regard for the work the program does in reaching disconnected youths.

What would happen if YO! Baltimore closed?

“It would have a huge impact on the future,” Harrold said. “That would be a thousand 16- to 21-year-olds out there that have nowhere to go.”

Youths value staff

Youths such as Danielle Costello, an 18-year-old single mother and high school dropout who recently got her GED through YO! Baltimore, then enrolled in a nursing program at Baltimore City Community College, say they value the program staff.

“They’re always there for you, no matter what,” Costello said, recalling one staff member who picked her up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday to take her for her GED test because she had no other way to get there.

Or DeJuan Carroll, 22, who has a series of drug-related run-ins with the law and still feels the temptation to go back to hustling.


Youth jobs are wide-ranging
through YO! Baltimore.
Source: YO Baltimore

“It is so difficult waking up, looking in the refrigerator, you don’t see nothing, looking at your pockets and they’re not how you want it to be,” said Carroll, who records rap music in a recording studio at the Westside Youth Opportunity Community Center. “Everybody flying past in cars and you know you could do it,” Carroll said, referring to going back to hustling. “It be hard.”

The youth workers at YO! Baltimore, he said, help him stay focused and positive.

“They’re giving me what I need, the energy, to feel like I could be something instead of doubting me or putting me down. I need people to believe in me,” Carroll said.

Carroll’s remarks are a concrete example of the observations of Steve Trippe, president and executive director of New Ways to Work, a San Francisco-based organization that promotes a collaborative approach to youth development. He believes it was a mistake for the federal government to sire and then surrender YO.

Trippe served as a “coach” who helped develop and implement the Youth Opportunity sites, primarily those in the West. He said youth-focused centers, such as the one in Baltimore, are an important factor in recruiting and keeping engaged youths who’ve become estranged from education and work.

“When you check, and talk to youths and young adults who are disconnected about what’s important, it’s a safe place to go and get access to services and also be with other young people,” Trippe said. “They don’t do well being served by the adult system.”

He said other access points to services are often indifferent to the needs of youths.

“It’s like going to the DMV or something,” Trippe said. “Young people don’t feel welcomed. They don’t understand the process. They’re looking for immediate assistance. They’re looking for counsel. Some type of support.

“In some places,” he said, “people are not attuned to the needs of young people. There’s not a strong setup to say, ‘You’re 19, out of work, you need more than just a quick fix. You need access to a sequence of services and supports over time across a broad range.’ ”

He also believes it is foolhardy to think Youth Opportunity programs can survive without federal funding.

“This notion of sustainability, in this environment without some sort of federal support, is goofy,” Trippe said.

Quite simply, Trippe said, Youth Opportunity ended too soon.

“They didn’t have a chance to mature,” Trippe said of the Youth Opportunity program sites that got federal funds. “You don’t turn around the life of a young person who’s been abandoned or not served well by all of our public systems for all of their childhood and youth in six months to a year. It takes time for any young person to be successful as an adult.”