For Youth Who Dropout: Pathways or Merely Stops Along the Way?

September 30, 2014

… It is not a time like when I was a teenager. I could just impress a supervisor or manager, fill out the application, and I had a job…But now, I have to break that down to [the youth] consistently and show them they can’t get discouraged…And that’s my fear [their] frustration and despair.

— Ralph, Workforce Development Specialist.

Ralph is speaking about his caseload, young adults who have dropped out of school whom he is seeking to place in jobs. Surely his “frustration and despair” finds echoes in today’s headlines. In many American communities, 40 percent or more of adolescents fail to complete high school.  The social and economic consequences of dropping out do not need to be reiterated here.

Most research on programs for dropouts has focused on national, multisite initiatives—for example, YouthBuild, Strive, the National Guard Challenge Program and others. This research is valuable but has limited generalizability to the community-based programs that serve most of these youth. And while I wish that some of the national initiatives could be expanded to meet the need, that is unlikely in today’s fiscal climate. Community-based programs serve large numbers of young adults. It is these local efforts that communities must rely on to advance the fortunes of most young adults who have dropped out. Yet, even taken together with the nationals, we still only reach a small proportion of those young people in need.

The challenge in reaching dropouts is not only one of scale, but also of selection.  Seventy percent of dropouts read and do math below the eighth grade level. Most will require a year or more to obtain a GED—not all will succeed in doing so—and face multiple hurdles before they are ready for stable employment. Prolonging services means that achieving marketable outcomes for young adults is expensive and that the results are uncertain, as some young people will drift away when the pathway gets lengthy. This presents enormous challenges for the field. Most programs, including the nationals, select those who test at levels that indicate that they can achieve a diploma within months.

For a year (2011-2012), I conducted an in-depth study of two leading community-based programs for youth who have dropped out, each in a major northeastern city. I wanted to take a close look at the nuts-and-bolts of programs, not just the overall structure and outcomes. What do programs do that youth find engaging and demanding? How do the young people respond? What do they consider most useful for their development?

To do so, I observed activities, interviewed staff and tracked 27 participants. The results of my study, funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation and the Pinkerton Foundation, are now online.

While not a researcher, I thought that my practitioner’s eye might help to identify directions for further experimentation and research at the community level. In this study, I draw on my own observations and on work by others. I sought strong sites that were initiated and managed locally and that serve nearly the full range of dropouts—from those who read well below the eighth grade level to others who are nearly ready to prepare for college. I selected the two programs after reviewing five sites.

I believe the most important aspects of these two are:

  1. Each organization has a profound commitment to the population which has persisted for seven or more years consecutively in spite of constant difficulties with the funding and policy environment
  2. Each has sought continually to refine its work in light of experience and research
  3. Each has demonstrated the ability to sustain the involvement of many participants for a year or more, and to help them complete steps to a marketable outcome, although continued support beyond the period of core services was often necessary.

Furthermore, I identify and describe several key characteristics of these sites which taken together, are key to their strength of operations. More detailed descriptions of their work as well as responses from participants can be found in the full case study.

In these community-based programs:

  • Services are comprehensive including counseling, academic and job readiness preparation, and support while young adults transition to work and further education.
  • Staff explicitly employs a youth development approach. This includes the persistent attention of an adult counselor who expresses caring, high expectations and tailors support toward each individual.
  • Participants have an active role especially in articulating their goals and a pathway to reach them. Periodic assessments enable them to gauge their progress.
  • Personal support is provided beyond the period of core services, following up even after young adults are placed.
  • The programs build relationships with multiple employers and post-secondary institutions to secure placements.
  • Organizational practices are designed to increase the quality of implementation. These include the use of data for continuous improvement, the refining of program models and professional development of staff.
  • The programs are large enough that they are able to target services to different subpopulations.
  • The parent organizations are aggressive and work to improve the policy and funding environment in which they operate—and have had successes in doing so, including getting funders to offer more flexibility on the types of gains and the length of services. 

When programs are well-implemented and use an integrated set of these strategies, they enable young people to advance, despite the challenging funding and policy environments. At the same time, I found that in both locations, advocating for additional funding to enable outreach to more young people—especially those who have the greatest gaps in skills—is critically important. The success and growth of community-based (as well as national) programs will depend in part on that.

Interested in learning more? Read the full report (PDF). 

This blog was written by Peter Kleinbard ( and is posted with permission from the WTG Grant Foundation where it appeared initially It has been adapted slightly. Kleinbard is a consultant who works with organizations serving adolescents. From 2001 until 2010, he was executive director of the Youth Development Institute, a national intermediary based in New York City. He also founded the Youth Transition Funders, an affinity group for foundations. Click here for the full report on which this blog is based: 

Peter Kleinbard