Making Progress at the DC ReEngagement Center

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The DC ReEngagement Center (REC) was able to match 200 of those disengaged young adults with appropriate education programs, with a “stick rate”  (the percentage of people who remain in their education program for the academic year) of 74 percent.

Close-up of boy (12-13) doing homework at desk
Disengaged young adults place an inordinate burden on cities, which must often dedicate more resources in public assistance and social safety net programs in order to support this disconnected population. (Getty Images)

Washington, D.C.’s 2014 launch of a full-scale reengagement center designed to bring dropouts back to school is featured in the YEF Institute’s recently published book on strategies cities across the country have used to help disengaged young adults complete their education. I sat down with the DC ReEngagement Center’s Deputy Director Isaac Hammond-Paul 18-months into the center’s operations to discuss how it has been able to successfully engage 74 percent of its clientele in education programs.

In 2014, the District’s high school graduation rate stood 20 percentage points below the national average, leading to a considerably higher than average number of disengaged young adults, defined as unemployed individuals ages 16 to 24 who have not completed high school.

The DC ReEngagement Center (REC) modeled itself on similar programs in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, and is just one example of several dozen efforts nationwide by cities to reconnect disengaged youth to the education system.

During its first year of operation, the REC, run by the Office of State Superintendent for Education (OSSE) in conjunction with the Department of Employment Services (DOES) and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME), held initial intake sessions with roughly 600 dropouts, according to Hammond-Paul. The center was able to match 200 of those disengaged young adults with appropriate education programs, with a “stick rate”, the percentage of people who remain in their education program for the academic year, of 74 percent.

Hammond-Paul detailed the REC’s five-part process for connecting the District’s disengaged young adults with education programs that best fit their individual circumstances, which includes: Outreach, Assessment, Referral, Reenrollment, and Ongoing-Support. The program runs as follows.

The center uses a variety of methods to conduct Outreach to disengaged young adults. Every week the REC receives a list of recent dropouts from the city’s education department, who center staff then contact immediately over the phone or in person. Additionally, the center has set up a referral network made up of criminal justice, employment and health organizations that work with young adults who have not completed high school. The center has also had success with peer-to-peer referrals by asking current clients whether they have friends or family who would be interested in the REC’s services.

Young adults interested in the center’s programs are then invited into the center to begin the Assessment process, where have a one-on-one intake meeting with a reengagement specialist. During the meeting, the specialist and the client discuss the specific barriers that stand between the young person and his or her return to the education system, as well as what services are available to help the client overcome those barriers. Barriers typically include employment issues, unstable housing, child care, and lack of adequate transportation.

Soon after the initial meeting, the specialist invites the client back to the center to complete the comprehensive intake process to gauge the client’s academic ability, review old transcripts, and get a fuller sense for how the specialist can best support the individual.

Following the assessment, the client moves on to the Referral stage where the specialist helps identify the best educational option for a particular client. The range of services offered by education programs varies, so the specialist works with the client to determine which would be the best fit.

Once the pair decide on a best-fit option, the reengagement specialist initiates the Reenrollment process. The specialist arranges a site-visit and helps the client collect the necessary transcripts and documents required for enrollment.

After the client reenrolls into a program, the dropout specialist provides Ongoing-Support via monthly check-in meetings to ensure that the client is on track to successfully graduate from the program. If an issue does arise, the specialist works with the client to eliminate any barriers.

To learn more about the efforts of the Washington, D.C. center and other dropout reengagement centers, see the new book “Reengagement: Bringing Students Back to America’s Schools” available from Rowman & Littlefield publishing house. One young man’s reengagement experience with the DC REC is detailed in the National Journal piece “Waiting for Daniel.”

niels headshotAbout the Author: Niels Smith is a Heinz Fellow at NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. He is currently completing his degree in Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College. Contact Niels at