Dropouts Turn Employees: Basic Lessons

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The youth asleep on the park bench attracted Cop Lieu’s attention.

Lieu, 22, a supervisor at the Work Group in Pennsauken, N.J., was on his way home after monitoring an after-hours program for youths involved with his job-training site.  

A former dropout himself – who completed the same nine-month curriculum he now supervises – Lieu recognized the sleeping form as that of Luis, one of his students. “What are you doing? Can I give you a ride home?” Lieu said he asked the teen. Luis replied that his parents had kicked him out and he’d been homeless the past few days.

 Lieu took Luis home with him that night, then back to the training facility the next day, where the two sat down, devised a plan, called Luis’ parents and worked out a deal to get him back in their home.

 “From then on, it’s been mutual respect,” Lieu said, pointing out Luis, now a Work Group graduate who is employed as a maintenance worker nearby, mopping the work site’s hallway. “He comes back and volunteers a lot around here.”

It’s rare that a staff member at this career readiness, community service and GED test prep corps program has to take in a homeless student, but the incident illustrates the Work Group’s persistence in tracking its students, both during their time in the program and during their post-program job hunt.

The 17 full-time staffers’ round-the-clock monitoring and follow-up for their roughly100 new students every year is a key to the program’s success in connecting with 16- to 25-year-old dropouts, 40 percent of whom have been through the juvenile justice system. Nearly all of them grew up down the road in Camden City, a community of just under 80,000 that has one of the highest per-capita crime rates in the nation.

The Work Group’s success in achieving low recidivism and high retention and job placement rates prompted its national parent organization – the Corps Network – to begin five years ago to develop a replicable model to serve youth who had been incarcerated or otherwise involved with juvenile courts.

The model, known as the Civic Justice Corps, received initial funding in 2006 from the U.S. Department of Labor to support 11 sites and funding later that year from the Corporation for National and Community Service for three more sites. Today there are 21 CJCs across the country.

In June, the Labor Department announced a $10 million grant to the Corps Network to expand and deepen CJC services at six sites. All 143 Corps Network programs are eligible to apply to be one of those six sites. Officials here in Camden say they will apply. 

The Labor Department has also given a matching $10 million grant – it, too, is designed to provide training for high school dropouts and young adult offenders – to YouthBuild USA, which operates a program similar to the Civic Justice Corps.  

 

“Most dangerous small city in America”

The city of Camden, though small, has massive problems. With a youth unemployment at least at the national average of almost 75 percent, the city is rife with gang activity and drug dealers, has high school dropout rates of 50 percent or higher and makes frequent appearances near the top of “most dangerous cities in America” lists. Programs like the Work Group can only make a dent in the overall problems. But successful methods developed by the Work Group have the potential to change the lives of youths far from Camden.

And the Work Group’s successes are impressive:

  • Just 9.4 percent of Work Group students with criminal records recidivate.
  • About 80 percent of enrolled students complete the program.
  • Fifty-two percent of all Work Group students pass their GED exam.
  • Ninety percent of all students are placed in employment, advanced training and/or postsecondary education within 12 months of completing the program.

The numbers tell only part of the program’s accomplishments. Seeing students enthusiastically tackle jobs – such as painting murals to cover up gang-tagged graffiti in public parks – can’t easily be reduced to marks on paper.    

Originally formed as a private nonprofit in 1983, the Work Group became a site for the New Jersey Youth Corps of Camden County a year later.

Lori Godorov, a 14-year veteran of the Work Group, has spent the past eight years as its executive director. Her partially glass-paneled office overlooks the front entrance of the Work Group’s modest site – which she estimates at 8,000 to 9,000 square feet.

Godorov sees five new classes of 14 to 17 students each pass through the front door each year, plus numerous former students – some who graduated from the program and others who dropped out. Everyone is welcome to hang out in a recreation room the students named the “Chillspot” and a lounge area called “the Cut” during After Hours (5-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday) or to seek out a staff member during business hours for advice on anything.

“We often say, ‘Once a corps member, always a corps member,’ ” Godorov said. “We don’t kick anybody out; we transition them.”

Camden school dropouts – many actually stopped attending school before high school – who are looking for GED test preparation are either referred to the program by friends or are strongly recommended, but never mandated, to enroll in the corps by a parole officer, probation officer or judge. All youth referred by court officials are officially in the Civic Justice Corps, though they take the same curriculum as others at the Work Group.

Godorov said that with absolutely no recruiting, the Work Group still turns down 350 Camden County youths a year.

Students accepted into the program must test at the seventh-grade reading level, though there are some exceptions. The first five weeks are a probationary period for all new students and are spent solely in the classroom, five days a week for 5½ hours a day. This initial phase is devoted to group forming. “We are trying to build a positive peer-based support network that will combat the negative peer-based support network,” Godorov said. That is just the beginning; classes stay together the entire nine months in the program. “It’s a gang mentality; it’s no different.”

Classes start with about 25 students but are usually down to 14 to 17 students by the end of the probationary period. Most dropouts take place during the first week, Godorov said.

For the next eight months, students spend two days in classroom instruction, two days in on-site community service work and Fridays in a variety of activities, including instruction on topics such as health education, sex education and financial literacy, or field trips to art galleries and performances. At least two employees supervise their activities at all times.  

 

Learning how to choose, find, get and keep a job

Classroom days consist of 5½ hours of GED test preparation and two hours of career development training, or as Godorov put it, “learning how to choose, find, get and keep a job.” But she said it is the seven-hour days devoted to community service work when students truly prepare themselves for a career.

“Our students usually have no, or very little, work experience,” Godorov said. “They often don’t have working parents as role models, so even basic things like showing up and following a task through to completion … the students learn how to do that.” The work-site days begin and end with meetings with supervisors at the Work Group’s Pennsauken, N.J., office, but most of the day is spent at various community cleanup projects throughout Camden.

For the duration of the program, students receive a weekly stipend of $75 – soon to be raised to $90 – that is intended as pocket money for transportation and other items.

Donye Tucker, a 20-year-old single mother who dropped out of high school when she became pregnant at 17, is a graduate who was at Work Group on a recent summer day to take advantage of follow-up services. Now in her second semester at the two-year Camden County College after completing the Work Group curriculum last year, Tucker named the work-site projects as the most beneficial part of the program.

 “I always had the mindset of, ‘I don’t want a job,’ ” she said. “Work sites helped a lot and let me know that even if I don’t want to work, you still have to do that.”

Tucker is a graduate who didn’t need hassling or reminders during her follow-up period, or “Second Stage,” as the Work Group calls the period immediately after the program ends – either with graduation or because the student dropped out. Godorov said that even at the completion of the nine-month program, many of her former corps members still are not ready for postsecondary education and are better off finding a job in retail or hospitality. The Work Group places graduates in local jobs through partnerships with Camden businesses, but it is the staff’s aggressiveness in its one-year Second Stage process that stands out.

“We call the night before they start a job. ‘You work where? How are you going to get there? Are you excited or are you nervous? Do you have what you need? What time are you going to wake up?’ ” Godorov said.

“We have to be there intensively and deliberately for that first year, and we do it when folks are having problems and when things are going well.” When that one-year Second Stage is over – Godorov wishes there was funding to extend it to two years – former students are still welcome to drop by for services; they just won’t be hounded by staff on the phone. Those who never complete the initial five-week probationary period are the only ones who do not receive follow-up services.  

 

Maximum potential for growth

A valuable partner for the Work Group is the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office, specifically Community Justice Director Angel Osorio. Osorio, who oversees her office’s community partnerships and crime prevention units, found something striking about the Work Group after she initially contacted Godorov eight years ago.

“There are various nonprofits that do work with [the Prosecutor’s Office] and I immediately saw that the Work Group is much different than the rest of them,” Osorio said. “The organization is much different than some of the other fragmented, not-so-coordinated efforts that are being done elsewhere.”

Osorio listed the benefits of the Work Group – the skills training, the mentoring, the nurturing environment, the post-program services – as reasons she refers youth to the program and keeps Godorov informed about community service projects. “So if they’re successful with that, there’s a high likelihood that we’ll never see [the students before the Prosecutor’s Office] again.”

On the national level, the Washington, D.C.-based Corps Network and its President and CEO Sally Prouty are busy planning the development of CJC under the $10 million contract from Labor and a $1.75 million grant from the Open Society Institute that followed.

The six sites chosen to receive Labor Department funds each will expand services to 100 more youths, with the overall goal of more fully testing and standardizing the model.

 Prouty made it clear that expanding CJC is a calculated effort born out of a business-planning process. The Corps Network hired an outside consulting firm that determined the CJC model had the maximum potential for growth based on needs and access to resources. “We didn’t just pick this out of the air,” she said. 

Godorov and Lieu would love it if a share of the money reached Camden. Both have been outspoken at the local level advocating more resources, chiefly to serve more of the 350 students who are turned away every year.

 The Work Group’s annual $1.5 million operating budget – mostly from public funds – received a big boost last year when David Grant, then the president and CEO of the New Jersey-based Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, assembled a team of private New Jersey grant makers to kick in donations to the Work Group, and to set up two similar startups in Trenton and Perth Amboy, N.J.

But finding new sources of funding remains a constant struggle for Godorov.

“I hear our one-stop systems saying young people don’t want services,” Godorov said.

“I have 350 kids a year who are asking for services, and we turn them away. You know how they say, ‘If you build it, they will come?’ No. If you build it well, they will come.”