November/ December 2013 Connecting Kids to College and Careers

Five ideas that really work.

By Dorian Friedman

Maybe Servon Lewis was destined to beat the odds all along. It just took him a while to figure out how. Growing up in the Bronx with his hardworking parents, four brothers, a sister, and two cousins, Lewis dreamed of a better life beyond the tough streets. He applied himself in school, earned good grades, and steered clear of the gangs around the housing project he called home. But when a near-fatal truck accident left his father permanently disabled, Lewis’s family struggled to get by on public assistance. Lewis finished high school and set out to find steady work to support his parents. For four years, he languished, holding only part-time jobs at minimum wage with no benefits. “I tried and tried to get a decent job, but after a while I just sort of gave up,” Lewis, now twenty-four, explained recently. “I felt embarrassed and defeated, and I stopped looking for something better.”

Encouraged by his mother, he applied to Per Scholas, a nonprofit job training program providing free technology training and career development in low-income communities. Lewis attended intensive, hands-on classes five days a week, seven hours a day. But just as important, Per Scholas offered the mentoring, life skills, and basic necessities—a Metro transit card, a new business suit—essential to boosting Lewis’s self-esteem and preparing him for job interviews. He graduated last year, and quickly landed a paid IT/desktop support internship with Neuberger Berman, a leading global asset management firm, as the result of a partnership between Per Scholas and the firm. Today, Lewis holds a full-time IT position in the firm’s New Jersey office—at a salary he admits he never dreamed of making. He owns a car, leases an apartment, and has enough to give back to his close-knit family. “My life has changed, and I’m never going to stop working hard. It’s what got me here,” he says.

Lewis is one of the lucky ones. As many as 5.8 million young Americans—one in seven young adults aged sixteen to twenty-four—are neither working nor in school. Millions more, like Servon Lewis once was, are trapped in jobs that make it tough for them to get ahead. According to a study by Civic Enterprises and America’s Promise Alliance, two-fifths of these struggling young people come from families who are middle class or better.

As Richard Florida chronicles (“The Living-in-the-Basement Generation”), the inability of many young adults to pursue economic independence comes with enormous and long-lasting costs. While part of this phenomenon is the result of the Great Recession, many young people are struggling because they’re simply not equipped to succeed. In central Iowa, for example, 17 percent of young people are “disconnected” from school and steady work. At the same time, “there are more jobs—good jobs—in Iowa than we have Iowans to fill,” laments Rob Denson, president of the Des Moines Area Community College and chair of Opportunity Iowa.

The good news in this otherwise dismal landscape is that many efforts now under way in communities across the country are effectively helping young adults succeed in school, job training, and, ultimately, a meaningful career.

The five case studies below highlight some of the most effective programs that could serve as national models for creating new opportunities for young adults to succeed.

1. PENCIL:Pairing School and Business Leaders

PENCIL’s founders understood early that business leaders have a critical role to play in improving public education. Founded in 1995 in New York City, PENCIL pairs prominent business leaders with public school principals in an effort to help students from elementary school to high school—more than 215,000 youngsters this year—to learn in the classroom and to excel in the workplace.

PENCIL’s model targets five key “focus areas” that impact student achievement: school leadership, family engagement, student engagement, college and career readiness, and school infrastructure. And PENCIL’s Fellows Program, a career development model for promising juniors and seniors that culminates with a paid, full-time summer internship at leading businesses across New York City, is an important component of its college- and career-readiness work.

In surveys of principals and executives participating in the program, both educators and employers say they’ve observed marked benefits from the program, including better attendance at parent-teacher conferences and improved academic performance among students who regularly attend PENCIL activities.

On the strength of its success, PENCIL has expanded to other cities, and now operates affiliate programs in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Rochester, New York.

2. Gateway to College:Second Chances for High School Dropouts

Gateway to College is a national network of colleges that offers dropouts (and students on the verge of dropping out) a chance to earn both a high school diploma and college credit. Since its launch at Oregon’s Portland Community College in 2000, Gateway to College has been replicated at forty-three colleges in twenty-three states—its rapid growth fueled by keen interest and funding from some of the nation’s top education foundations. In 2012, Gateway reached about 3,000 students across the country.

The typical Gateway student enrolls at age seventeen, having left high school with a GPA of just 1.4 and fewer than half the credits needed to graduate. Since most students require more than just academic instruction, Gateway’s model combines classroom teaching with a range of wraparound social and emotional supports needed by many at-risk students trying to finish high school and transition into college. Those who excel in the first year rejoin the general student population in year two.

Gateway has shown far better than average rates of success in helping dropouts achieve their GED. On average, graduates also earn thirty-two college credits, well on the way to an associate’s degree.

3. LaGuardia Community College: Going Beyond the GED

Many young people find that a traditional “youth” program is no longer relevant to their needs. Older young adults in particular aren’t likely to enroll in programs for teenagers. In New York, some are finding great success with the GED Bridge to Health and Business program (GED Bridge), which takes a new approach to adult education. GED Bridge’s “contextualized curriculum” prepares lower-skilled individuals to pass their equivalency exam and continue on to specialized college and career training programs. Students receive added help with career advisement, financial aid, and social supports.

According to an initial evaluation by the nonprofit education and social policy research organization MDRC, one year after enrollment, GED Bridge students were more than twice as likely to have completed the course and passed the GED exam than students in a traditional GED prep class, and more than three times as likely to have enrolled in college.

As Dan Bloom, a longtime MDRC poverty researcher, notes, programs like GED Bridge can provide a missing link in the current range of solutions for older high school dropouts. In today’s competitive labor market, those with a GED alone face tough odds. The need for stronger pathways to post-secondary education has never been greater—and the urgency will only increase in 2014, with a new national GED exam that puts a high premium on college readiness.

4. Roca:“Truth, Trust & Transformation”

Dorian Friedman a freelance writer, has covered social policy trends for many years and is the former director of communications at the Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit Corporate Voices for Working Families.


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