This Week in Education: Back-to-School for Disconnected Youth?

September 27, 2011

There's a lot moving within federal education policy at the moment. Last Friday, President Obama announced his No Child Left Behind (also known as ESEA) Waiver program and today he'll deliver his back-to-school speech. We'll be watching to see what he'll say. Has his vision for educational achievement in America shifted in any way? How will we—students, advocates, parents, Americans—reflect and react to what he may share?   

Me, I'm wondering most of all whether he'll address disconnected youth, and whether they'll be watching.

This speech is an opportunity for the President to shed some light on what’s being done for young people who have dropped out of school and are disconnected from both the education system and the workforce, with few prospects for economic mobility. To the President’s credit, his American Jobs Act proposal includes the Pathways to Work Fund for low-income youth; hopefully he will emphasize the need to do even more for our young people. because it's critical that as Congress and states take on education policy and college access and affordability, we ensure that disconnected youth are not left out of the conversations.

The time is now. Recent employment and poverty data clearly show that the recession continues maintain its grip on our economy. In a blog last week, the Campaign for Youth's Kisha Bird gave us a clear picture of the most recent poverty numbers:

  • "According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest poverty figures, twenty one percent of youth ages 16 to 24 live in poverty.  This figure…skyrockets to 45 percent for those young people not enrolled in school and without a high school diploma."
  • What's more, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a national unemployment rate of 9.1 percent for August 2011, with 26 states and the District of Columbia reporting increases in joblessness.

It shouldn’t take much more to convince policymakers that federal investments for children, families and youth should be protected at all costs. But let's face it, we know it will. It will take all of us holding our elected representatives accountable—and to guide our policymakers and practitioners in setting the stage for pathways that reconnect young poeple to education and workforce readiness opportunities.

Disconnected youth are often overlooked in our discussions about K-12 education policy and college readiness; but the stakes are even higher now given the current work of the Super Committee—12 lawmakers charged with developing a plan to reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion. Depending how it all plays out, this could be devastating for education and workforce programs that benefit our youth.

Several lawmakers are calling for cuts in discretionary programs during tough economic times—but the opposite approach is what we need: as families lose economic footing across the country, the federal government should loosen its own spending to offset the cutbacks that Americans are experiencing.  

How can we help make that possible? We need to rally together behind the shared message that Congress must protect (and expand) effective programs that help diverse youth improve their academic performance, identify career aspirations and strengthen employer-desired skills to achieve their goals. It matters to young people and it matters to our nation's economic health.

If there's a bright spot (and I believe there is), it's that we know a lot about what works to reconnect young people—and we have current policy efforts built around that knowledge.

The RAISE UP Act, introduced by Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Representative Dale Kildee (D-MI), supports locally developed systems that will identify youth who have dropped out of high school and challenge them to secure a diploma, a postsecondary credential and a career that pays a family-sustaining wage. It will do so through a comprehensive approach that provides young people with opportunities in the areas of education, workforce preparation, and wraparound support services. It would help states do what we know works: bring together local stakeholders, coordinate resources, and identify and fill in the gaps in services. It's a powerful systemic approach to one of the nation's most troubling problems, and has a real shot at helping all young people be ready for college, work and life.  

We at First Focus believe it's important to focus on prevention mechanisms to help raise student achievement and improve graduation rates--but it is also critical that we create re-engagement strategies that locate disconnected youth, identify why they dropped out, and connect them to the supports they need to succeed in education and the workforce. The RAISE UP Act would help accomplish that.

Learn more about the RAISE UP Act>>>

Sign up in support of the RAISE UP Act>>>

Roberto Viramontes is the Vice President of Education Policy for First Focus.

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Roberto Viramontes