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IMPROVING THE ECONOMIC AND LIFE OUTCOMES OF AT-RISK YOUTH: New Report Finds That “Reconnection” Programs Must Focus on Education

Ivry and Doolittle explain that "many of the most comprehensive, intensive programs have a hard time enrolling and retaining young people."

At a time when having a high school diploma and postsecondary education is more important than ever to developing a successful career path, too many of this nation’s youth are stumbling down paths that lead to dead-end jobs, social disengagement, or imprisonment.

This disturbing trend is especially prevalent among low-income and minority youth, who are more likely to drop out of high school, less likely to complete college, and more likely to be imprisoned than their white counterparts and those from higher-income families. In fact, one-third of Hispanics and one-fifth of African Americans between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four did not have a high school diploma and were not enrolled in high school or college in 2000. Furthermore, nearly 75 percent of state prisoners did not earn high school diplomas. We can no longer ignore the connections between low levels of educational attainment and the poor life outcomes faced by all too many young people in this country.

Robert Ivry and Fred Doolittle from MDRC, a nonpartisan social policy research organization, argue in Improving the Economic and Life Outcomes of At-Risk Youth that programs which are successful at reconnecting youth to educational and career development opportunities must “focus on education, including computer literacy; paid work or training; the involvement of caring and committed adults; special services for youth with language and reading difficulties, mental health, or other special needs; resiliency skills; and leadership development.”

Programs such as Gateway to College at Portland (Oregon) Community College do just that. Gateway to College allows high school dropouts with at least an eighth-grade reading level to enroll in small college preparatory courses of no more than twenty students. These courses are intended to improve their reading, writing, mathematics, and career-planning skills so that they can progress quickly to postsecondary work. In addition, each student is assigned to a resource specialist who provides them with individual support and advising. Upon successful completion of the preparatory courses, students enroll in standard Portland Community College courses that count toward their high school diploma and an associate’s degree.

Community colleges in other states, including Maryland and California, are beginning to recognize the success of Gateway to College and are replicating the program in their own communities. Other plans, such as Youth Enhancement for Success and the Youth Skills Development and Training Program, sponsored by the Alternative Schools Network in Chicago, are also making great strides in reconnecting youth to educational and career paths. These programs offer academic and career development advising, counseling, and other support services to youth who have dropped out of school.

Despite the achievements of these and other reconnection programs, Ivry and Doolittle explain that “many of the most comprehensive, intensive programs have a hard time enrolling and retaining young people.”

Missouri Juvenile Prison System Focuses on Reconnecting Young People

A recent Los Angeles Times article reports that approximately 50 percent of those released from California juvenile prisons will be imprisoned again within two years. In response to a similar problem, Missouri has redesigned its juvenile prison system, changing it from merely a long-term holding cell for disconnected youth to one that is focused on reconnecting young people to meaningful personal, educational, and career development. The new system in Missouri is centered around intense rehabilitation through individual treatment plans, academic development, group therapy sessions, highly trained staff, “trackers” who monitor each person’s progress and small group environments that foster trust and reliance on one another. Criminal justice administrators from several states, including Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, and New Jersey, are changing their systems in the hope of repeating Missouri’s success.

These program models demonstrate that there are features of youth reconnection initiatives that can be successful in a variety of settings-including academic and career guidance, individualized support networks, and small group environments. However, in order to overcome self-selection and serve greater numbers of at-risk youth, Ivry and Doolittle note that it is important for these programs to garner broader public support and make concerted efforts to actively engage disconnected youth, who are most at risk of dropping out of school and heading down a dangerous path.

While reconnection programs are clearly meeting a great need in our society, they should not be considered substitutes for quality middle and high schools that prepare students for postsecondary education and lasting careers through small learning environments, highly qualified and effective staff, and individualized support. Reconnection programs that have proved successful in improving the prospects for at-risk youth must continue to be developed while the nation acts on its public responsibility to provide quality educational opportunities to all students.

Improving the Economic and Life Outcomes of At-Risk Youth is available at

Read more about Missouri’s program at,1,3039931.story?coll=la-home-headlines.

“Choosing Prisoners Over Pupils”

In an op-ed for the Washington Post, “Choosing Prisoners Over Pupils,” Andrew Block and Virginia Weisz argue that the educational opportunity that was promised in Brown vs. Board of Education is as “painfully out of reach as ever for our most disadvantaged children.” They write that this crisis is most apparent in high-poverty school systems, where “African-American males are now more likely to end up in jail or in prison than in college.”

The article notes that several states now place spending for correctional facilities at a higher priority than public and secondary education. In California, the authors write, state correction officials use the percentage of children who read at a fourth-grade level or lower to help gauge the number of prison beds they will need in the future.

This estimate is supported by research which has demonstrated that students who fail to graduate from high school are more likely to participate in criminal activity than students who do graduate. In fact, high school dropouts are 3.5 times more likely than high school graduates to be arrested in their lifetimes.

In their concluding paragraph, the authors make a plea for an investment in education now that will pay off many times over in the future:

Not only do we spend more to imprison, we spend less to fund alternatives to prison that are more productive and less costly. For those who waste years of life in prison, we pay a price tag of millions. With a significant fraction of that cost, we could educate and employ many of those same people. The question must be faced: Are we really leaving no children behind, or are we simply putting them out of sight, and, sadly, out of mind?


Read “Choosing Prisoners Over Pupils” at


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