November/ December 2013 Connecting Kids to College and Careers

Five ideas that really work.

By Dorian Friedman

Guided by a motto of “Truth, Trust & Transformation,” Roca has worked in the Boston area for twenty-five years to salvage one young life at a time. The program seeks out the most difficult, challenging young men for whom other programs have failed, and pushes them to identify, confront, and overcome destructive behaviors and learn the skills they need to reengage in society, education, and the economy. Participants—aged seventeen to twenty-four—include convicted felons and gang members, refugees and immigrants, youth in the foster care system, and single parents. To date, Roca has helped more than 25,000 of these young men make positive, sometimes profound, changes.

Roca accomplishes this feat through a unique intervention model. For two intensive years, clients move through a “stage-based program” of activities and case management, starting with relationship building and life skills and progressing through education and eventual employment. Two more years are devoted to individualized follow-up.

Roca’s intervention model has shown significant results. In 2012, Roca served 409 very high-risk young men, retaining 78 percent through the year in educational and prevocational efforts or transitional employment. Of those who completed the intensive component of the model last year, 90 percent have had no new arrests, 100 percent have had no new technical violations, 79 percent were on track to retain employment for at least six months, and 70 percent demonstrated education gains.

Over time, the dividends are more dramatic: participation in Roca’s model resulted in a 67 percent drop in repeat arrests after five years and a 100 percent increase in employment compared to other high-risk groups.

Now acclaimed as a national model, Roca has expanded to Springfield, Massachusetts, and last year was chosen to help lead a “pay for success” experiment in the state, which rewards organizations only if they deliver proven results. Roca’s model will be carefully studied by Harvard University researchers, and the organization will be rewarded for delivering better social outcomes and cost savings—a virtual guarantee, given its track record to date.

5. Year Up:Nonprofits Building Key Skills

With supporters from Wall Street to Silicon Valley and Capitol Hill, Year Up has quickly become one of the most promising models empowering disadvantaged youth to reach their potential. During its intensive one-year training and education program, participants spend six months building core professional and technical skills—IT/help desk support, network support, and so on—in a classroom. The second six months focus on applying these skills through an internship with one of Year Up’s 250-plus corporate and government partners, which include companies such as Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, and LinkedIn.

The program stresses academic and professional rigor, setting high expectations for quality of work and professional behavior, and relies on a wide network of staff mentors, social workers, and community-based partners to guide young people along the way.

Significantly, Year Up focuses on higher-achieving and motivated disconnected young adults, specifically low-income urban youth, aged eighteen to twenty-four, who already have a high school diploma or GED. Through the program, they can earn up to twenty-three college credits and a weekly stipend. Some 1,900 students participate annually at Year Up sites in ten metro areas across the U.S.

The outcomes are impressive. Short-term studies show that 84 percent of graduates are employed or attending college full-time within four months of completing the program, employed Year Up grads earn an average of $15 an hour (equal to $30,000 a year), more than 95 percent of interns meet or exceed employers’ expectations, and nine out of ten corporate partners would recommend the program to peers.

Year Up is committed to building more robust evidence about what’s working—and refining what’s not. The program was recently selected to participate in a flagship ten-year federal evaluation—the Innovative Strategies for Increasing Self-Sufficiency study—sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Not surprisingly, expansion plans for the program are under way. Year Up aims to serve 2,500 young adults yearly by 2016 and open at least three more sites to bring its successful model to more needy youth.

“The common belief system in this country was that if you got to the age of eighteen and hadn’t made it, you were basically a lost cause,” said Year Up CEO Gerald Chertavian, who founded the program in 2000 after a career as a tech entrepreneur. Too many inner-city kids, including the ones he befriended and mentored in New York and Boston, were seen as economic and social liabilities. A dozen years into the Year Up model, Chertavian says he is proud that the program “has started to change the perception of those young people as economic assets rather than liabilities” with employers and policymakers alike.

To ensure that more young people have access to successful programs like these, policymakers should support a dramatic infusion of federal funding to support these efforts. But with fiscal and political realities likely to make this difficult, there’s also plenty that can happen outside Washington.

Employers, for example, are taking a growing interest in addressing the opportunity gap. Employers, after all, are the end users of workforce talent and thereby stand to gain or lose the most from the quality of the labor pool. Several prominent groups (including Opportunity Nation, Year Up, and MENTOR) are working with the Ad Council to develop a national public service campaign, due out in early 2014, that aims to shift public perceptions of vulnerable youth who would otherwise be overlooked by employers. This campaign will seek to portray “opportunity youth”—young people who are neither in school nor working—as “essential economic assets,” and make the case for altering mainstream business practices so employers large and small consider investing in these young adults.

Related to this effort, the new Employment Pathways Project will be launching an online resource library for employers and policymakers that includes hands-on tools for recruiting and hiring youth, proven best practices and case studies, and even a zip code locator to identify local mentoring opportunities and community partners who can facilitate training and hiring. At the same time, organizations such as United Way Worldwide, the National League of Cities, and the Aspen Institute’s new Forum for Community Solutions have all expanded efforts to help communities share best practices and advocate for policy change.

The dramatic rise of youth unemployment in recent years means that finding the right solutions has become more urgent than ever. Through a firm national commitment to supporting effective programs that create opportunity for youth, policymakers can ensure that success stories like Servon Lewis are the rule, not the exception.

To read more from our November/December 2013 cover package on opportunity in America, click here.

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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