NYEC Model Programs are … Pepping Up Youth Employment’s Image

Anne Lewis
November 1, 1996

What distinguishes Casa Verde Builders in Austin. Tex., says Richard Halpin, is that youth are treated as "participants, not recipients" and "we listen to them and use their ideas to put the pieces together."

One of those ideas is concern over quality. Halpin, who heads the AmeriCorps/YouthBuild program's sponsor, the American Institute of Learning, said the group wanted to build "affordable housing" for low income people that lasts 100 years and is energy efficient instead of the usual cheap construction. And they are doing it.

Another idea was development of a CD-ROM for peers on substance abuse. It was named best in show at a major national computer exposition.

“These kids will be our leaders or our worst nightmares," Halpin said. He is betting on their ability to become entrepreneurs. Investing in them, he added, will save taxpayers in the long run.

Dispelling 'Disbelief

Halpin spoke during a series of Washington meetings to focus attention on Casa Verde Builders and 17 other model programs from around the country being spotlighted by the National Youth Employment Coalition (NYEC) to launch its Promising and Effective Practices Network (PEPNet).

The 18 programs met criteria hammered out by a 40-member PEPNet Working Group, the first time the field has had a consensus on quality standards. Sixty-two programs applied. Six of the 18 making the grade are members of the NYEC. At a Department of Labor (DOL) ceremony honoring the initiatives, Erik Butler, chair of the coalition, said PEPNet was created to challenge the "collective disbelief in youth programs" and "to put a disciplined process around quality" that can be communicated to policymakers and funders.

The gathering of program directors and youth employment supporters at DOL and later at a Capitol Hill session sponsored by the American Youth Policy Forum certainly was upbeat. Networking among the initiatives—a goal of the project—began immediately. Alan Zuckerman, NYEC's executive director, urged the projects "to steal ideas from each other" and to continue "to translate the reality of the streets, schools, and centers into the reality of this building (the House of Representatives)."

Success Stories

The reality for Bruce Saito, for example, is trying to cope with an enormous number of young people in Los Angeles who have dropped out of school and are on the streets. Head of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, Saito said those who graduated in 1995 from one high school in the south central area of Watts represented only 29 percent of the class that began four years earlier.

"The 71 percent who dropped out are out there on the streets," he said. "We realize we have to use all of the strengths of groups in the community to reach them." Alternating work on environmental projects with education and support services, his conservation corps urges participants to complete a GED but is just as interested in relating work skills to classroom learning. The corps members' environmental work ranges from collecting recyclables to painting murals; they have earned more than $80,000 in postsecondary scholarships.

The investment in Tricia Martinez, high school dropout and mother of two pre-schoolers, by the Young Adult Learning Academy in New York City is one of the PEPNet success stories, "I was an unsure parent," she told the DOL audience, "so unsure that I didn't want to be placed in a day care center by the program."

The experience, however, turned her around. Tricia is now enrolled at Marymount College, majoring in psychology. The program, she said, “made me achieve my goals and made me a better parent."

PEPNet's Criteria

The Los Angeles and Austin programs and the other 16 met criteria that took several months to develop. The Working Group examined research and practice, starting their discussions at a 1995 Miami retreat and continuing them until the spring of 1996. "The process got those of us who work in the field to sit down and try to turn vague terms into concrete ones and to design a way to show that there is a lot of good stuff out there," said researcher Tom Smith, formerly with Public/Private Ventures in Philadelphia.

The result, he told the forum, is that “we can identify strengths, and we have programs that have generated evidence of their success."

The four broad criteria used by the Review Board, which included many from the original Working Group, included:

  • Strong, stable and effective management by the organization that operates the initiative.
  • A well-conceived and implemented approach to youth development.
  • Clear emphasis on the development of skills, knowledge and competencies that lead to jobs and careers.
  • Evidence of success.

Seven thousand youth organizations received notices of the first competition. More than 700 asked for materials: 62 submitted applications. The materials led them through a self-evaluation which PEPNet hopes will be useful for all youth organizations, not just those applying for recognition.

"We stayed tough in the selection," said Joan Wills, chair of the PEPNet Task Force and a member of both the Working Group and Review Board. She told YOUTH TODAY that the strongest points of the 18 initiatives were their "focus on their mission, they know who they are" and their emphasis on development of their own staffs.

The most frequent reasons for rejecting an application were "the lack of clarity about their mission" and the lack of documentation, she said. Also, the federally funded Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) programs tended to be "too bureaucratic."

Making Higher Wages

Smith pointed out other strengths of the initiatives that were selected—the importance given to the "voice" of young people in the programs like Casa Verde Builders, the emphasis upon community service, and the programs' ability to connect learning and work.

As an example, the New Jersey Youth Corps of Camden County holds meetings of staff and students together to evaluate if the program is meeting its goals. For Howard Knoll, director of Youth Services at the Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center in New York City, "young people are the quality control experts in our system. We listen to what they tell us."

The Milwaukee Community Service Corps uses community service projects to integrate work, education, job training, career exploration, and life/personal skills.

Focusing on preparing minorities and girls for skilled trades jobs, the Manufacturing Technology Partnership of the UAW/General Motors Flint (Mich.) Metal Center has had success working within the schools and other institutions. It connects school work with apprenticeships.

Of the 71 students who completed the two-year program, 68 have passed the UAW/General Motors apprenticeship certification "above the national average or better, compared to about 10 percent of other high school graduates," according to program director Bob Morrish. Their average wage is about $4 more an hour than the prevailing wage.

Problems, Problems

While the program directors were proud of the kids they serve, they were not as happy with their circumstances. Asked by the PEPNet Director Edward DeJesus (a Kellogg National Fellow) about barriers and prospects for the future, the directors discussed problems from the inane to the profound.

The Gulf Coast Trades Center in Waverly, Tex., takes on a difficult group — mostly adjudicated youth — and provides them with personal and specific skills training in a residential setting. Under summer-program funding, how-ever, its building skills projects cannot allow the participants to use electric saws.

"If they don't know how to use this equipment, they can't get jobs," complained Mike Buzbee, the program’s executive director. For Bernice Lever, head of the Arizona Call-A-Teen Youth Resources in Phoenix, erratic funding of youth employment and development programs sends mixed messages to young people. "On the one hand, we tell them how important they are, and then the next year we are struggling to keep up services for them," she said. Another slight of youth is the sub-minimum wage level for those under age 20.

"Our youth under 20 are parents, and we don't have sub-minimum food or diapers." she noted. "What kind of message is that?"

Accountability Woes

The most vexing problem for the programs, however, is accountability. They stem from requirements by funding sources to produce measurable results quickly. Funders are constantly changing program requirements "that are structured to be complicated" and frustrate those who measure success in daily contacts with their kids.

"Every time a new law was put in place, they changed the game," pointed out Elton Jolly of the Opportunities Industrial Centers and founding chair of the coalition.

The barriers to creating a sound, accountability system result in a dependence on anecdotal evidence, according to some of the program directors. For youth worker Knoll, the evidence is sufficient "when I meet a kid who is still on the job six months after leaving our program and says he is doing great." But he also asked for help on creating better criteria to show effectiveness to federal officials.

A sore point for many of those running programs for youth is that while they are asked to provide evidence of quick success, the public schools, whom some accused of failing the at-risk kids. are not held as accountable. "If other programs such as the schools had to be under such scrutiny, they wouldn't be in business," Kate O'Sullivan, program associate at NYEC, told YOUTH TODAY.

Several of the initiatives operate with-in or have close ties to schools, and Morrish urged that second-chance systems "get back into the school systems where we can get to kids and where they belong." Nonetheless, three of the initiatives are running their own charter schools; all have education components.

"We have to figure out this whole issue of accountability," commented a Republican House staffer working on education/job training issues who asked not to be identified. "We need to ask if we are measuring the right things and what is the right role for the federal government."

Other PEPNet initiatives in the first group include: Bucks County “Treasures and the Law," Doylestown, Pa.: Career Link Academy, Seattle, Wash.: Denison Job Corps Center, Denison, Iowa; Fresh Start, Baltimore, Md.; Hubert H. Humphrey Job Corps Center, St. Paul, Minn.; McKesson Summer Youth Development Program, San Francisco, Calif.; Moving Up Career Advancement Program, NYC: STRIVE, NYC: and URI/GAP JTPA Summer Employment Initiative, Providence, R.I.

The criteria and application process for PEPNet are being reviewed, and a second announcement will go out early next spring, according to NYEC's O'Sullivan. Contact: Ed DeJesus, NYEC, 1001 Connecticut Ave., NW, Suite 728, Washington, DC 20036; 202/659-1064.


NYEC Model Programs are … Pepping Up Youth Employment’s Image: The Sticky Evaluation Problem

Lewis, Anne. "NYEC Model Programs are … Pepping Up Youth Employment’s Image."Youth Today, November/December 1996, p. 14-15.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.