Training teens who dropped out

Photo via Thinkstock
Photo via Thinkstock

Several weeks after her 15th birthday, Alicia Flores simply stopped showing up to school. As a child, she dreamed of becoming a veterinarian or working in a day care center. But those dreams began to gradually erode. Teenage rebellion, peer pressure and her parent’s divorce began to occupy her mind.

Her entire ninth grade was a struggle. She couldn’t pay attention in school. She began missing classes. “I was doing bad in school,” she says.

By the time Flores was in the tenth grade at Junipero Serra High School in Tierrasanta, many of her friends were already spending more time hanging out in the park or at friends’ homes instead of the classrooms. It wasn’t long before she did the same.

“I was just not interested in school at all,” she says. “I didn’t think it was going to take me anywhere.”

Far from her home in Paradise Hill, a neighborhood in southeast San Diego, policy makers, academics and educators deliberate on ways to help the thousands of young people in California who like Flores, at one point, are neither in school nor work. Young people who miss out on early work experience are more likely to face unemployment in adulthood and are less likely to achieve higher levels of career success. Such missed opportunities invariably impacts their quality of life and health.

Deemed ‘disconnected,’ these youngsters are entering adulthood without formal education, work experience or social skills to compete in a changing work environment.

Nationally, more than 5.8 million–or one in seven– young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are neither in school nor in the workforce, a recent report titled “One in Seven: Ranking Youth Disconnection in the 25 Largest Metro Areas” found. The rates among disconnected black, Hispanic and lower-income youths are consistently and disproportionately high.

At 29 percent, blacks between the ages of 20 to 24 have the highest rates of disconnection than any other group, according to a December Annie E. Casey Foundation and Children Now study “Youth and Work: Restoring Teen and Young Adult Connections to Opportunity.”

In California, the number of disconnected youths has been on the rise.

More than 850,000 teens and young adults–roughly 18 percent–between the ages of 16 and 24 are disconnected, according to the Dec. 3 report. The state’s figures are higher than the national average (17 percent) and 35 percent higher since 2000. The report also found youth employment is at it’s lowest since World War II, with California ranking near the bottom.

Some observers say the problem can be traced to the nation’s changing work environment–one in which youths face stiffer competition for limited jobs. As an older generation delays retirement, fewer spots are freeing up for entry-level workers to move up, leaving college and high-school graduates to compete with experienced laborers for positions previously filled by workers with little or no work-history.

“More young people are taking part-time jobs just to pay the bills. Some are taking unpaid internships so they can have the experience. And many more are doing volunteer work to keep their resumes fresh,” says Terence Grado, director of national and state policy at Generation Opportunity.

Least-qualified workers, who generally tend to be those without education or work-experience, hurt the most.
“I felt it was hard for me to find a job because I didn’t have a high school diploma,” Flores tells the California Health Report.

She handed in dozens of résumés in person and submitted job applications online. She applied in grocery stores, family restaurants and fast-food chains. When a chain sandwich restaurant hired her but she never got any hours, Flores decided to join the Urban Corps of San Diego, a conservation corps and charter school that helps young people obtain a high school diploma and gain job skills.

“I had no way to pay for the things I wanted. No money for the bus,” Flores recalls. “I tried looking for work but did not have nice clothes to wear to the interview. I felt like I wasn’t the kind of person they wanted to employ.”

Being disconnected goes beyond not having spending cash. Research shows that joblessness as youths result in lower wages for years to come due to foregone work experience and missed opportunities to develop professional skills.

Disconnection can stunt their personal growth and hurts their self-esteem, stresses Kristen Lewis, co-author of the One in Seven report. “This is the time when you are deciding who you are. You are gaining educational credentials, you are building your networks–your very identity,” she says.

Myrna Contreras, director of student services with Urban Corps of San Diego, understands such hurdles. Many young people come to the Corps with limited or no work experience. Some arrive with the belief that “I’m not good enough. I don’t have good skills to compete in the workforce,” she says.

She says the program teaches them about personal responsibility—military style. Boys must shave daily and have their hair two inches from the scalp. Participants must tuck in their shirts. Punctuality is important. Being one minute late can get them sent home, Contreras says. They earn their high school diploma and get paid for cleaning streets, planting trees and removing graffiti.

About 36 percent are immigrants and refugees, with the rest being San Diegans; some 24 percent are women. “From the moment they walk into the door, we have expectations,” Contreras says.

Stephen Alcaraz, 21, of San Diego, said he wanted to help his single mother financially but didn’t have the credentials or confidence to find employment since dropping out of high school. He joined Urban Corps when a friend told him about the program.

Since joining the program, Alcaraz has learned about his talents and learned how to set and meet career goals.

“I’m good at math and formulas and problem-solving,” Alcaraz, who recently received a scholarship to pay his classes at a local community college, says proudly. He plans to transfer to a four-year university to study to become a civil engineer.

As for Flores, she has also noticed many transformations in herself since joining the program. She can talk to adults and groups. She can shake people’s hands and look them in the eyes. “I’ve learned a lot of skills,” she says. “I see a future.”

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