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WHATEVER IT TAKES: Report Examines Efforts to Recover and Reconnect Out-of-School Youth

"The nation has more than enough models and know-how to be able to reclaim America's dropouts."

There are more than 6 million 18- to 24-year-olds in the United States without a high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) certificate. According to Whatever It Takes: How Twelve Communities Are Reconnecting Out-of-School Youth, a new report from the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), the largest obstacle for reconnecting these individuals to society is not a lack of successful models, but the absence of the moral and political will to properly address this “underrated American dilemma.”

“The nation has more than enough models and know-how to be able to reclaim America’s dropouts,” the report reads. “Unfortunately, in many communities the work of recovery and reconnections has yet to begin in earnest … Without a widely-held popular conviction that dropouts represent an unacceptable loss of life and opportunity both for young people and the nation, real progress will be difficult to achieve.”

Based on visits to dropout recovery programs in 12 U.S. communities, the report found that efforts to steer dropouts into productive roles in society vary. They occur within traditional public schools, specially created “recovery schools,” alternative learning centers, charter schools, community colleges, and more. Within these programs, the ultimate goals for students are as varied as the learning environments. “Some emphasize preparing young people for employment after first building a foundation in literacy and numeracy,” the report reads. “Others stress education writ large and, from the outset, urge their participants to aim for success in postsecondary education. Still others focus on personal development and preparation for responsible adulthood in all its familial and civic dimensions.”

Given these varied approaches, it is no surprise that the report did not identify “one perfect model or blueprint” for successful dropout recovery. However, it did find several common characteristics of effective dropout recovery throughout the communities studied. The report found that for the most part, dropout recovery and retention programs are very flexible in terms of scheduling and enrollment, with most practicing open-entry/open-exit models that allow students to proceed through the curriculum at their own pace. In addition, curriculum tends to be real-world and career oriented, with an eye toward local employer needs. Successful programs also recognize that many students need income to support themselves and their families and offer financial support in the form of employment opportunities in summer and afterschool hours, or modest stipends for work performed while in training.

The report also found that dropout recovery programs experience few disciplinary problems even though they serve a high percentage of young people who have been involved in juvenile justice systems or expelled from previous schools. In fact, it found that youth in reconnection programs want to learn and succeed, and recognize that they have “wasted much of their young lives and are eager to change.” It notes that most of the programs observed have long waiting lists, well beyond their ability to serve.

Like a survey of high school dropouts released by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last month, AYPF found that a large majority of out-of-school youth initially fell behind their classmates and dropped out, not because of poor prior schooling or academic performance, but because of social, economic, and psychological barriers. In response, the report recommends that reconnection programs provide access to support services in vital areas such as health and nutrition, teen parenting and child care, transportation, substance abuse treatment, mental health, and English as a second language.

Finally, the report states that “committed adults, steadfast in their support of young people’s success, are the key element of dropout recovery. What they share is an unwavering commitment to putting students at the center. As we often heard from students, these schools and programs often provide the first occasion for them to feel that anyone cares about their success, the first chance for them to feel valued.”

The report notes that schools have many lessons to learn from successful dropout recovery programs. “When we ask young people who are successfully completing a second-chance recovery program why this program has worked whereas their former high school failed them, they tell us that they no longer feel like a number, that they are now part of a ‘family’ that looks out for them and is genuinely dedicated to their success.”

In addition to the 12 local programs, the report highlights 6 national programs: Job Corps, Jobs for America’s Graduates, National Guard Youth ChalleNGe, Opportunities Industrialization Centers, YouthBuild, and Youth Service and Conservation Corps. While these programs enroll many of the nation’s out-of-school youth, their combined annual enrollment totals only 150,000 at most, or a little more than 2% of the 6.27 million 18- to 24-year-olds who had neither a high school diploma nor a GED in 2000. The report described this low percentage as a “powerful indicator of how poorly our nation is responding to the enormity of the dropout problem and its dire consequences.” It adds that dropout recovery efforts are funded largely by state and local public and private revenues and that support from the federal government, which is shrinking, plays a relatively minor role.

The report cites the U.S. Department of Labor’s Youth Opportunity (YO) Program as an example of lagging federal support. The program, which awarded about $1 billion to 36 communities over 5 years in May 2000, is now being phased out. While the final evaluation on the YO Program will come from the Department of Labor’s formal review, the report found clear short-run accomplishments for the communities and youth involved. For example, the YO Program had a penetration rate of 42% of all eligible youth and 62% of out-of-school youth and “played a seminal role in the recent dropout prevention and recovery efforts” of nearly 100,000 youth in its 36 communities.

In the end, the report concludes that out-of-school youth are largely forgotten in most circles. “Overall, one cannot avoid the conclusion that the United States gives neither adequate thought nor sufficient resources to the national shame of out-of-school youth,” it reads. “It has become ever-clearer that governments at all levels do not yet regard dropout recovery (as distinct from prevention) as a morally or economically compelling priority worthy of major investment of public monies.” In fact, out-of-school youth represent an “underrated American dilemma that, to an alarming degree, threatens social stability, weakens our economy, and diminishes the lives of millions of fellow Americans-and our own.”

The complete report is available at

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