Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Moving From Research to Results

The release of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s new report, “Youth and Work: Restoring Teen and Adult Connections to Opportunity” has garnered a lot of media attention this week and as such, we found it only fitting that we pay some attention to it as well. “Youth and Work” focuses on “disconnected youth”-youth who are neither in school nor working and here at DCAYA we are always happy when the media picks up stories about such important issues. However, even with all the research and press coverage about how much money disconnected youth cost society, how ending youth disconnection could help end the inter-generational cycle of poverty, or even how the collapse of the economy disproportionately affected young people; we still do not see very much progress being made on moving large numbers of young people into self-sustaining adulthood. 

“Youth and Work” offers up some clues as to why this is the case. For starters, education reform both nationally and here in the District has not gotten to a place yet where it can effectively cut off the supply of disconnected youth. Young people continue to under perform in, or drop out of high school in droves which is usually the first step in becoming a “disconnected youth”. Two of the most often cited factors in this decision include: boring or irrelevant coursework, and young people becoming parents. These barriers, if prevented, would go a long way in stemming the tide of disconnection. 

For instance,though making high school interesting and relevant to all students is by no means an easy task, there are certainly measures that that if implemented correctly would go a long way in preventing drop-out. Examples of drop-out prevention include: better integrating career and technical education (CTE) classes that offer direct connections to the workforce into high schools, ensuring schools are appropriately staffed with career and guidance counselors to advise students on course selection /career options, and better connecting academic coursework to "real world" experiences like summer jobs and internships.

Creating more pathways to high school graduation that integrate child support services and allow pregnant and parenting students to continue their education could also be another strategy in cutting off the "supply" of disconnected young people. For example, currently 21% of disconnected youth nationally are young parents. If we apply that percentage to the District (which we admit is imperfect) that means that 1,890 of our city’s young people are currently parenting while not working or attending school. If we could prevent just half of those young mothers and fathers from dropping out we could likely prevent over 1,000 more young people from becoming disconnected every year.

Another reason we have not seen a huge amount of progress in moving larger numbers of young people toward self-sustainability is that, as “Youth and Work” points out, the system that serves disconnected youth is not just one system, but rather a complicated web of services and supports which makes it inherently difficult for youth to navigate. Further complicating this issue are the funding silos that exist among education (both secondary and post-secondary), workforce, child welfare, juvenile justice and human services agencies that often have conflicting priorities and metrics for success. As the authors of “Youth and Work” put it, “despite rhetorical and legislative language encouraging cross-disciplinary and cross-system approaches, funding streams and programs remain largely categorical and fragmented.”

We cannot expect success if every government entity views only their current service population as “its people”. For instance young people who are a part of systems of care, like the child welfare or juvenile justice system, are at an exceedingly high risk of becoming “disconnected youth” and as such, young people who are transitioning out of those systems need extensive supports to achieve self-sufficiency once they “age out”. As self-sufficiency hinges on having a source of income, we would hope that the transition services offered to young people in systems of care involves the same high-quality educational, career exploration and foundational work experiences that we know put all youth on the right track. But what if the career training offered by the juvenile justice agency was not aligned with the services offered by a workforce agency (e.g. workforce readiness training, opportunities for early work)? Or what if a local college was unfamiliar with the educational vouchers young people in the child welfare system can utilize to attend classes and pay for books? When government agencies do not collaborate, blend resources, and share data, young people are forced to navigate these systems themselves, often to their detriment.

All this is not to say that we will never be able to move the needle on youth disconnection; however it is indicative of how much work still needs to be done if we want to see real results and not just more research and press coverage of youth disconnection. To this end, “Youth and Work” makes a number of recommendations for policy makers, communities and funders on how this could be achieved. We strongly recommend you check out the report and if you are interested in ways to end youth disconnection locally, we also suggest you check out:

Strengthening Career and Educational Pathways for DC Youth, Brookings Institution, 2011. 

Ripe for the Picking:  Opportunities for Private Investment to Affect Disconnected Youth in Washington, DC. DC Alliance of Youth Advocates, 2011.

Youth Voices on the DC Graduation Crisis. DC Alliance of Youth Advocates/ STEP Up DC, 2010.

Lastly, for those interested in DC-AYA's policy and advocacy work around disconnected youth please visit us at or contact our policy team.

This post was written by DCAYA Policy Analyst Anne Abbott.

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