What do Phoenix, Boston, Los Angeles and soon Tucson have in common?
They’re cities with large numbers of young people who aren’t in school or at work that are having success with re-engagement centers that connect youth with education and careers.
ReEngage Phoenix, which helps youth find ways to earn their high school diploma or GED, launched this summer at the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix with the help of the City of Phoenix.
“In two and a half months, I’m thrilled to say we had our first one (graduate),” said Judy Reno, director of College Depot, which ReEngage Phoenix is a part of. “We have a long way to go, but we’re looking forward to celebrating many more of those successes as students complete their preparation programs and continue on to the next step.”
In January, Tucson will open its first re-engagement center, Youth on the Rise, to help the area’s 15,000 youth not in school or at work, said Amanda Kucich, senior director of youth development for United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona.
“None of them wanted to drop out, they felt they had no other choice, there was no other option they could see because life had just gotten a little too crazy,” Kucich said. “It will keep being crazy for a while after you connect them. That’s why we need to have re-engagement centers with lots of caring supportive adults around them and peers who have been through it themselves.”
During the Re-Engaging Disconnected Youth Summit held in Phoenix last week by the Maricopa County Education Service Agency, the directors of both the Phoenix and Tucson re-engagement centers said they looked at what worked in Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and other cities, then adapted key elements to meet their needs.
Data-based strategies in Boston
When a Boston workgroup determined in 2004 that one in three Boston Public Schools high school students was not graduating, the school district, city, agencies and community groups came together to change that, said Kathy Hamilton, director of Boston Private Industry Council Youth Transitions.
As a result, a credit recovery program for off-track seniors began in 2008 that now graduates more than 200 students a year, a re-engagement center was launched for returning dropouts in 2009 and alternative education was refinanced in 2012, Hamilton said. Over the past 10 years, the number of dropouts has decreased 43 percent, Hamilton said.
A key to their success included having Mayor Thomas Menino champion their cause from the beginning, Hamilton said.
“The leadership of the City of Phoenix is very committed to ReEngage Phoenix,” Reno said. “We’re very fortunate we have this existing infrastructure that enabled us to get going right away and start making an impact.”
Also important to the Boston center’s success was gathering a coalition of willing organizations and agencies, Boston Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson leading the drive for online credit recovery, using data and research to determine goals, measuring progress annually and engaging the public, Hamilton said.
The Tucson group used U.S. Census data by tract to find where concentrations of disconnected youth are in Pima County, examined local reports on homeless and foster care youth, completed an asset map to identify services in Pima County and gaps in services and hired a consultant to create a shared data system, said Dr. Deborah Garza Chavez, opportunity youth director for Youth on the Rise.
Partnerships in Los Angeles
YouthSource centers in Los Angeles provide school district services, workforce development, community college access, business connections and child welfare, probation and mental health services through partnerships, said Selena Barajas-Ledesma, pupil services administrator for the City Partnership Program-Youth Source System at Los Angeles Unified School District.
“We work very closely with community based organizations such as Friendly House, Genesis Academy, Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCA, Jobs for Arizona’s Graduates and about 20 others,” Reno said. “We have also tapped into our city partners. The Workforce Investment Act and Youth Workforce Connections office and all their partners have been really critical in this.”
Los Angeles Unified invested $1 million to put student services counselors in the centers, Workforce Investment Act launched a dropout recovery system, and 70 percent of workforce training dollars were put toward serving disconnected youth, Barajas-Ledesma said.
In Tucson, partners included the types of service they could provide to the center and what they’d like to add when additional funding is found, Garza Chavez said.
What’s working best in Los Angeles are career pathways in construction, healthcare and automotive technology that combine basic skills with sector-based work experience, a truancy diversion program that identifies causes and engages students and parents in an off-campus environment, and a student recovery day in which volunteers make home visits to dropouts and youth with high rates of absence, Barajas-Ledesma said.
Since the YouthSource Centers began, 26,448 young adults have used them, 10,514 received an educational assessment, 5,770 enrolled in the YouthSource System and 1,646 high school dropouts were re-engaged and re-enrolled in school, Barajas-Ledesma said.
In its outreach efforts, ReEngage Phoenix has emphasized collaboration, hosted a Spanish-language telethon with Univision and Genesis Academy Alternative High School to let people know about their services, and capitalized on its location at the library.
“People trust the library. Libraries are where people naturally go to when they need to be connected with employment and services, so we’ve been able to tap into that,” Reno said. “Our library serves about 1 million people a year, is a vibrant hub, and is downtown on the light rail and bus lines.”
During the telethon, volunteers answered more than 1,000 calls from students who had dropped out of high school and told them about ReEngage Phoenix and ways to get involved in their community. After the telethon, ReEngage Phoenix hosted information sessions to help youth take the next step, Reno said.
“We serve anyone who walks through our doors,” Reno said. “Every single day we get people coming in to ReEngage Phoenix because they see our posters up in the library because they’re using the library services.”
ReEngage Phoenix’s adviser, Christopher Seidel, previously worked as a dropout prevention specialist in Phoenix Union High School District. He and four full-time and four part-time employees run the center six days a week.
After learning what partner organizations offered, the team created a database of GED providers in Phoenix that includes cost, a contact person, location, requirements, and other services provided such as childcare or transportation assistance.
To evaluate their work, the team uses a student management database where they can include a pre- and post-workup for every student, case notes, interactions, referrals, confirmation of enrollment in high school or GED program, and a student’s GED completion or high school graduation date. Seidel also follows up with each student a week after he meets with them and on a monthly basis after that.
Tucson’s Youth on the Rise
The Tucson group’s work is funded by a $100,000 Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund grant that United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona was awarded a year and a half ago by Aspen Institute’s Forum for Community Solutions.
Before committing to a re-engagement center, Youth on the Rise sought input from detained, homeless, foster and other Tucson youth, Garza Chavez said.
“We’d looked at lots of reports about what opportunity youth needed and the barriers they face, but we wanted to learn from youth at home so we conducted interviews with different subpopulations of ‘opportunity youth’ through focus groups,” Garza Chavez said.
The re-engagement center is the first in a series of steps to help local youth, Kucich said.
The center will be easily accessible by public transportation, in an area with a high concentration of disconnected youth, a place where youth would like to hang out, and have many services available, Garza Chavez said.
A youth council will organize the center’s outreach by creating a marketing plan and putting it into action. Peer mentors will also meet with youth to develop trusting relationships, Garza Chavez said.
“Once that first re-engagement center is up and working, my goal is to have six re-engagement centers in Tucson over the next 10 years,” Kucich said. “I really believe strongly that this strategy is working, because I’ve seen it in other communities.”