The cycle of civic and social problems that start when teens drop out of high school and fail to get jobs caught the attention of Arizona civic, business, foundation and education leaders, in part because of a recent national report that identified Phoenix as having one of the highest rates of such disconnected youth in the nation.
With sobering data as a starting point for discussion, more than 200 people gathered on May 7 at the Disconnected Youth Summit, in Phoenix.
The summit, hosted by the Maricopa County Educational Service Agency, explored the problem, its short- and long-term impact on individuals and communities, and successful strategies for re-connecting disconnected youth in Phoenix and elsewhere in Arizona, particularly with educational options. Follow-up meetings will take place Oct. 15, 2014, and Feb. 12, 2015, said Dr. Don Covey, who leads MCESA as Maricopa County’s superintendent of schools.
“We’ve got a wicked problem here in metro Phoenix,” Brian Spicker, vice president of community impact for Valley of the Sun United Way, “The question is whether we as a community are willing to set aside some frameworks and adopt a different way of looking at things, a bold way of doing business and solve this.”
Digging into the data
Last fall, Measures for America, which researches and reports on well-being and opportunity in America, identified Phoenix as fourth among major metropolitan areas in the U.S. for disconnection among those between the ages of 16 and 24, with a rate of 17.2 percent or 93,000 young people. That was good news. In 2012, Phoenix was ranked number one at 18.8 percent.
“African Americans have the highest disconnection rates at 22.5 percent, but Latino youths are right on their heels at 22.3 percent,” said Kristen Lewis, co-director of Measures of America, and a speaker at the summit.
Disconnected youth are three times as likely to be disabled, two and a half times as likely to have dropped out of high school, and twice as likely to be in poverty, she added.
“Research shows that young people never really recover from long spells of disconnection,” said Lewis. “Instead they carry the scars of these lost years across the rest of their adult life in the form of lower wages, worse health, lower marriage rates, lower employment, and more contact with the criminal justice system.”
Measures for America’s latest report, “Halve the Gap by 2030,” found the rates between neighborhoods is much larger than between cities and ethnic groups, Lewis said.
In South Phoenix, for example, nearly one in every three young people, or 31.86 percent, is considered disconnected.
Arizona mayors get involved
Cities pay the cost for disconnection in more crime, costlier social services, reduced tax revenues and less economic competitiveness due to a less skilled workforce, Lewis said.
“Youth disconnection affects all of us, and we all have a stake in solving it,” Lewis said.
With the help of Helios Education Foundation and WestEd, a group of 10 Arizona mayors from Avondale, Gilbert, Goodyear, Mesa, Miami, Oro Valley, Phoenix, Sahuarita, Tempe and Tucson have formed the Arizona Mayors Education Roundtable to partner with schools to reduce the number of disconnected youth.
“These challenging issues we have with dropouts and disconnected youth, they are not someone else’s problem,” Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton told summit attendees. “These are all of our issues to roll up our sleeves and be responsive to.”
This summer, the group will release a report about the economic impact dropouts and disconnected youth have in Arizona, Stanton said.
Mayors “were just stunned” and asked “could these numbers be real” when they saw the first draft of the report that examines the costs of disconnected youth in each city and the state developed by a Columbia University economist and Santa Barbara researcher, said Dr. Paul Koehler, director of policy for WestEd, the non-profit, public research and development agency, that is facilitating the mayors group.
“This will give the mayors a way to talk to business and other community members that not only is this a problem for the youth – the individual person – but also for our city and our state economically,” Koehler said.
Arizona Republic reporter and summit speaker Eugene Scott brought attention to disconnected youth when he wrote an article on the subject in August 2013. Scott said he just wanted people to care.
“This article came out nearly a year after the report was published (that identified Phoenix as number one in the nation for disconnected youth),” Scott said. “It just kept resurfacing as an issue – one that I thought was very important. It became very clear that this was an issue that did not just affect some people in Phoenix, but everyone.”
Schools that offer students options like evening classes, weekend classes, online classes, and alternatives to the traditional schedule – like those in Phoenix Union High School District – have the greatest chance of drawing students back to school, Scott said.
“The reality is that some kids cannot go to school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” Scott said. “They are the breadwinners in their family. They are taking care of their kids or siblings. There are just other issues that make going to school during the day difficult.”
“Those of us who are very traditional in our mindset of what education looks like need to get rid of that, because the reality of the situation is that system does not work for everyone,” Scott said.
What’s working in Arizona schools
Summit presenter Jack Lunsford, an assistant to Mayor Stanton who spent 20 years with Maricopa Community Colleges advocating for workforce development, said a shift in thinking is required.
“What do businesses do? They invest in their assets,” Lunsford said. “We treat, in this state, education as an expense. That’s not an expense. An expense is what we do with paper and pencils. The folks we’re educating now are going to be our economic development in our future.”
Schools must see students as “great assets who can be invested in” instead of “problems that need to be fixed,” summit speaker Kent Scribner, superintendent of Phoenix Union High School District, told attendees.
In Phoenix Union, 94 percent of students are minority and 80 percent live at or below the federal poverty line, Scribner said.
“When you look at census tract data over many decades you will find that Phoenix Union student demographics are about a 10-year precursor to the City of Phoenix demographics, which in turn are about a 10-year precursor to the State of Arizona,” Scribner said.
“So it’s not all these poor kids can’t speak English and can’t go on to do anything,” Scribner said. “It’s what kind of Phoenix do you want in 10 years? What kind of Arizona do you want in 20 years?”
Fortune 500 companies say they want to hire bilingual, bi-cultural, resilient, and collaborative employees, Scribner said.
“I got a lot of kids who live in poverty, come to school and overcome obstacles every day. A lot of kids who work well in teams, who speak more than one language and understand more than one culture,” Scribner said. “If my kids are disadvantaged, they have all the disadvantages of success.”
Making sure those students stay connected to school is a top priority.
When Dr. Chad Gestson became principal of Camelback High School in the Phoenix Union district, he told employees, “Our job is to build amazing kids.”
That vision guided the turnaround of the school with the district’s lowest achievement levels. Gestson built an advisory period into the school day and paired each student with three adults to develop more personal relationships between students and staff. He also required each student to join a club, do community service, attend 20 school events a year, and either tutor other students or receive tutoring.
Since then, nearly 30 new clubs were organized, staff received training in customer service from Ritz Carlton staff, and a college-style commons was developed where students could relax and socialize after school. Students can study or do research at the school library which is open until 6 p.m. each school day, find financial aid at the scholarship center, and relax with friends at a sand volleyball court.
Before the changes, 1,100 of Camelback’s 1,800 students had Fs and only 300 students would have qualified for honor roll. Two years after the changes, only 300 students had Fs, and 600 students were on honor roll, Gestson said.
Help from volunteers, the community and Social Venture Partners, a network of business professionals that pool their philanthropic dollars but also give their time and talent, made the change possible.
Chandler Unified School District’s partnership with ICAN, a nonprofit that provides free youth programs, was also shared with summit attendees. The partnership led to the opening of Chief Hill Learning Academy, a non-traditional school for students who are at risk of or have dropped out, said Dr. Craig Gilbert, assistant superintendent of Chandler Unified.
Classes started in last July with five students two classrooms of ICAN’s Lori E. Hoeye Youth Center, home to an afterschool program for 250 K-12 students. By December there were more than 30 students, said Jennifer Chandler, program director.
“We didn’t advertise this was word of mouth by the students,” Chandler said. “These were kids coming back after being dropouts and talking amongst themselves about a new opportunity, a new building, and saying ‘Let’s check out what they have over there.’ ”
Chandler said she gets to know students and their families during an initial meeting with in-depth discussion about what brings them to the school and they develop goals in four areas: personal, family, academic and post-secondary.
Students use computer-based courses to progress at their own pace, work with instructors on complex content, and use life skills they learn from ICAN at school, home and work, Chandler said.
Looking outside Arizona
In addition to successful Arizona programs, summit attendees also heard about models finding success elsewhere in the nation, including the work of Big Picture Learning, a non-profit organization that over the past 20 years has re-engaged thousands of disconnected youth in the U.S. and around the world. Big Picture’s work, cited by summit presenter Dr. Charles Mojkowski, co-author of Leaving to Learn, focuses on involving students in real-world projects, guided by mentors and based on students’ interests.
“From the time a student enters our school in the 9th grade until she graduates in the 12th grade, she spends two days a week outside of school pursuing projects that start with her interests and morph gradually over time into career interests,” Mojkowski said. “Every single one of our students is working with organizations and mentors out in the field.”
As they talked to kids, Mojkowski and his co-author Elliot Washor learned that many young people feel they don’t matter in school and disagree with how school assesses their work, Mojkowski said.
“Young people find schools very hard to use for their learning, they also feel that they have no voice in what is designed and they feel that their talents are being wasted,” Mojkowski said.
Big Picture Schools, which started in 1995 with one school in Rhode Island and has grown to 100 schools worldwide, built their program on 10 expectations students have for school: Relationships, relevance, time, timing, play, practice, choice, challenge, authenticity, and application.
“We reasoned it would be difficult to accomplish (these goals) unless schools let their students leave,” Mojkowski said. “Let them leave to do part of their learning and then bring it back. You can see how doing that kind of work in the real world brings a whole different kind of assessment, a whole different kind of legitimacy to it.”
Now Big Picture Schools is working with other schools to help them incorporate parts of their program, Mojkowski said.
“Young people are just driven to learn, they just don’t want to learn our stuff,” Mojkowski said. “We bring the academics to their interests, to the projects they’re doing.”