Blog Post

For Young Adults Who Drop Out: Pathways or Merely Stops Along the Way?

How do local, community-based programs for dropouts work? Do they make a difference for their participants?

Programs developed and managed locally serve large numbers of youth, and their innovations are often the foundation for major national initiatives, including YouthBuild, STRIVE, and others. Yet most research in this area has focused on multi-site, national initiatives. While valuable, these studies have limited generalizability to organizations wrestling with local programmatic and policy challenges.

Furthermore, some local programs reach the full range of the dropout population, including those who read at the eighth-grade level or below. These youth make up the largest proportion of dropouts, but are excluded from nearly all of the national initiatives—and many local ones as well—because of funder requirements that participant outcomes, such as GED attainment, be achieved rapidly.

“…and it is not a time like when I was a teenager. I could just impress a supervisor or manager, fill out the application, and I had a job…But now, I have to break that down to [the youth] consistently and show them they can’t get discouraged…And that’s my fear: [their] frustration and despair.”— Ralph, Workforce Development Specialist, October 2010.

The major challenges in reaching dropouts are scale and selection. Scale, because only a small proportion are served with current resources; selection because most programs, including the leading national initiatives, are designed to enroll participants with skills that are strong enough that they can achieve a diploma and be ready for a job within months. The problem is that seventy percent of dropouts read and do math below the eighth grade level. Most will be require a year or more to obtain a GED and will face multiple hurdles before they are ready for stable employment. Prolonging services means that achieving marketable outcomes for young adults is expensive, and results uncertain, as some will drift away when the pathway gets lengthy. This presents an enormous challenge for the field. In 2011–2012, I studied two leading community-based programs for youth who have dropped out of high school, observing activities, interviewing staff and tracking 27 participants for one year. I focused at the community level because this is where most young adults are served, and yet these programs receive little attention.

For the case studies, I sought strong sites that were initiated and managed locally and served nearly the full range of dropouts. After reviewing five, I selected two–each in a major northeastern city. Beyond specific practices or components, what I observed to be the most important features of these sites were that: 1) each has a profound commitment to this population and has been in operation for at least seven years despite ongoing difficulties with the funding and policy environment, 2) each has sought to continually refine its work in light of experience and research, and 3) each has demonstrated the ability to sustain the involvement of many participants for a year or more and help them complete steps towards a marketable outcome.

I have also found that the sites share characteristics, which, when taken together, are key to their strength of operation. Detailed descriptions of their work and participant responses can be found in the full case study.

In these programs:

  • Services are comprehensive, including counseling, academic and job readiness preparation, and support while young adults transition to work and further education.
  • Staff explicitly employ a youth development approach. This includes the persistent attention of an adult counselor who expresses caring, high expectations, and tailored support for each individual.
  • Participants have an active role, especially in articulating their goals and a pathway to reach them. Periodic assessments enable them to gauge their progress.
  • Personal support is provided beyond the period of core services.
  • The programs build relationships with multiple employers and post-secondary institutions to secure placements.
  • Organizational practices are designed to increase the quality of implementation. These include the use of data for continuous improvement, refining of program models, and staff development.
  • The programs are large enough to target services to different sub-populations.
  • The parent organizations are aggressive and work to improve the policy and funding environment in which they operate and have had successes.

The shifting funding and policy environments are a constant challenge to local programs. But when well-implemented and with an integrated set of these strategies, these programs enable young people to advance. At the same time, advocating for additional funding that would enable outreach to more young people, especially those who have the greatest gaps in skills, is critically important.

Mentioned in this post
Peter Kleinbard will document the pathways to education and employment for young people who drop out of school and are unemployed–the disconnected youth.

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