From Low-Skilled to College-Ready: Building Pathways for All Youth Who Drop Out – Part 2

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Low skilled to college ready - for blogThis post was written by Peter Kleinbard, a consultant who works with organizations serving adolescents. It is the second in a series on dropout reengagement, drawn from the case study: For Young Adults who Dropout: Pathways or merely Stops along the Way? The study is funded by the William T. Grant Foundation and The Pinkerton Foundation, as well as others.

This post describes how two community organizations have sought to reduce a major obstacle that hinders the effectiveness of their work with young adults: the short periods of service determined by limited funding. This issue is especially important today when increasing numbers of young people achieve economic independence much later in their lives than in past decades. Those with limited skills often must trek over even longer and along more tenuous paths.

Yet, the largest source of funding for dropouts, Title I of The Workforce Investment Act is designed so that participants must achieve marketable outcomes in relatively short time periods, an approach that dominates the field, even among private funders. Title II, Adult Basic Education, is funded at levels so low that it is difficult to serve young adults because many need multiple and costly supports. As a result, many providers choose to enroll youth with higher skill levels.

The majority of dropouts, however, read and do math at the eighth grade level or below, lack vocational skills and work maturity. Research shows that the GED is a distant hope for many of these youth. Young adults in foster care or those coming out of prison require help for extended periods as well.

Both organizations described here have extended the length of their services to young adults well before they were able to bring about support for such changes from their funders. This stemmed from the foundation of their work – a deep commitment to young people at transitional stages in their lives. In addition to dropouts, both serve foster youth who are in school, and have developed high schools in cooperation with their school districts. This combination of activities gives them a large number of staff with an interest and expertise in adolescents.

Site A
(Note: as part of the research agreement for this project, the names of the sites, staff and participants are not included. The term “organization” refers to the parent organization of which the “site” is a part.)

Based in a large city, Site A is one program of a citywide organization founded in the 1930s. Young adults have long been a major focus. The site is located in an impoverished section with many outward signs of poverty and serves nearly 400 youth annually.

It has sought to serve nearly the full range of dropouts, from low-skilled to college-ready. Unable to get the local government to adjust its guidelines, Site A’s parent organization engaged a policy advocacy group that prepared a paper highlighting research that shows that gains in academic skills improved labor market outcomes, even short of the GED. The paper convinced the city’s largest private funder to pay on interim outcomes, such as academic gain. In the past it funded only on achievement of an outcome such as the GED or employment.

But money was not the only consideration at Site A. The organization recognized that it required new capabilities. Working with an intermediary, it has developed its instructional capacity and nurtures a culture that supports rigorous tracking and follow-up of participants, including home visits when attendance declines. All staff receives training and ongoing coaching, supported by private funds. Counselors and instructors meet regularly to discuss students that they work with in common.

Eventually, when a three-year evaluation study highlighted its strengths, the city government itself adopted the model that Site A implemented, reflecting the city’s renewed commitment to improve the life prospects for young adults.

Site B
Site B is based in a city of 150,000 residents and serves about 80 dropouts annually. It opened in the mid-1970s and in recent years has narrowed its focus to adolescents, including those in foster care and dropouts, about 400 each year. Its major offices and programs are located in an old factory building in a quiet residential area. The organization operates several other sites as well and is expanding statewide.

The organization’s approach emphasizes providing highly individualized support to each participant, shaped by comprehensive educational and vocational assessments, and a commitment to assist youth for a year after they complete its programs. This reflects the view of the Chief Operating Officer: “One of the biggest failures is using a cookie cutter approach to try to get young people to succeed. It just does not work anymore. I know [individualized support] is sometimes costly… But that is what we do.”

The organization’s leaders have worked for years with city and state officials to build understanding of their approach and to influence policies. While it has gained greater flexibility, the organization does not receive additional funds to provide longer-term support to young adults. Because of this, it must manage its private dollars to extend services.

Of their approach, a youth interviewed at the site said: “They helped me out tremendously. They helped me become a better adult, a more mature person. They helped me with my education, they helped me with my employment… I think without […], I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at now. ..I’m glad that I got into this program and been in it as long as I have.”

It is important to emphasize that for both organizations these changes in funding and guidelines came about only after protracted efforts, and resulted in part from the credibility that they had established through the quality of their services. The results have made an important difference. Among the 27 young adults tracked for this study, those who had longer-term services had better outcomes.


Peter Kleinbard_headshot

About the Author: Peter Kleinbard is a consultant who works with organizations serving adolescents. From 2001 until 2010, he was executive director of the Youth Development Institute, a national intermediary based in New York City. He also founded the Youth Transition Funders, an affinity group for foundations.