Out of School, Out of Sight and Out of Mind?

Andrew Hahn
September 1, 1997

"Who cares about dropouts? Who can be made to care? Is there any institution or adult sector even accountable for out-of-school youth. If there are programs, why not a 'system. ' If there is money in schools, why not have some of it stick with nearly the third of urban 9th graders who never make it to 12th grade? Why not have some of this school money migrate over to community programs?"

These questions were mulled many times over two years by a group of about twenty youth development experts meeting at the John Hopkins University. Their charge: find something positive to recommend in response to the rather sad assessment of the dim
prospects facing America's out-of-school population.

Marion Pines, the meeting organizer chimes in: "You are asking how we can mobilize political will! I'm not sure quite what it take to get folks to under-stand that by 2010, America will have 30 million l8-to-24 year olds, one-fourth of whom are likely to have been born into poverty."

A cheery researcher responds with a positive approach: "Let's not make appeals based on the great risk facing these youth and the nation. Instead, we should frame the issue by saying that now is the time to strike with creative policy responses. The healthy economy is doing the hard work that youth programs traditionally do, namely, helping the 'middle tier' of youth who just need a small amount of assistance. Now is the time to try to re-direct youth programs and policies to the group whom the economy is leaving behind. Our message should he: we can do it! The truly needy have been unmasked by the economy..."

But a national youth director with twenty years experience rejects this strategy: "I'm not prepared to obscure the truth. Everyone knows that 17- to 24- year olds who are not in school are three times more likely than older adults to experience a quadruple whammy of discouragement and alienation leading them to the streets and to crime, involuntary part-time work, gross earnings that keep them below the poverty line (especially among recent immigrants), and inability to find jobs or even connect with groups who can help them. Won't people be moved to action if we disseminate the dramatic fact that only one in ten young dropouts are able to find a job paying over the poverty wage ($300/week)"

"I don't think so," answers another program director. "I agree we should focus on the positives. Dave Gruber's analysis showing that school ADA money (average daily attendance, the primary way American schools are pro-vided funds from local tax levies) can and in some places is — being used in support of community-based education for dropouts opens up huge and encouraging financing possibilities."

Leaving Baltimore, I wonder how readers of YOUTH TODAY would frame the issue in their communities.

Some members of your community may resent what they perceive as another attempt to create a victim group. "These kids had a chance but they blew it." Others may argue that money should stay 100 percent in the schools, evoking the "prevention" argument but ignoring the reality of thousands of youth in non-school settings. Still other powerful forces may be locked on the idea that youth problems are transitory and can be ignored.

The Baltimore group cannot provide vivid testimonials from the neighborhoods or the magic key that will move your mayor, school superintendent, or business leaders to action.

But the Levitan Youth Policy Network report (below) from Hopkins crystallizes the issues. If should prove a great tool for everyone willing to begin the hard work of framing the issue for local mobilization.

A Generation of Challenge: Pathways to Success for Urban Youth can be ordered from the Levitan Center. Institute for Policy Studies, John Hopkins University, Wyman Bldg,. N3400 N. Charles St., Baltimore, Md. 21218.

Hahn, Andrew. "Out of School, Out of Sight and Out of Mind?." Youth Today, Sept/Oct 1997, p. 62.

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