There are a number of nonprofit and community organizations that provide different services aimed at empowering youth—from health, to education, to criminal justice, etc. Some of these organizations offer more than one service and have succeeded in impacting youth more effectively than others. In order to successfully resolve the problem of youth disconnection, it is important that effective programs be identified and supported. This will help allocate funding more efficiently as well as increase the impact of these programs. The Young Adult Capacity Initiative (YACI) conducted case studies a few years ago to explore the effectiveness of five programs located in New York City neighborhoods that are densely populated with disconnected youth. Re:LIFE is based upon the HEROES model of disconnection—a unique model that incorporates the findings of these studies by merging successful tactics of other youth reconnection programs and avoiding their mistakes.
The Youth Development Institute (YDI) funded five community-based agencies in NYC’s highly concentrated “disconnected youth” neighborhoods to create programs that would address the needs of this demographic. YDI saw the need for programs that would assist young adults in finishing their education, learning basic occupational skills, finding jobs and learning the skills and attitudes necessary to keep the job. In addition, they included that these programs needed to provide a range of services beyond GED classes and help with resume writing and interview skills. The five programs established by YDI included Cypress Hills Youth LEAD, East Side House Settlement, El Camino, Sesame Flyers International, and New Heights Neighborhood Center. These were the programs YACI examined in their case studies.
Outtakes From the Case Studies:
Case 1 (Brooklyn) Cypress Hills Youth LEAD (Learning, Educating others, and Achieving Dreams) Program:
This was an initiative within the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation (CHLDC) in East New York. East New York is in eastern Brooklyn, a part of Brooklyn plagued with high crime rates and violence, high disconnection rates, poverty and low educational attainment. The Cypress Hill LEAD Program initially provided GED preparation classes, weekly employment workshops and social events. It later added a job readiness workshop and counseling aspects of youth development. The main challenge of the Youth LEAD program as indicated by its operators was addressing the high level of support needed by their disconnected youth population. According to some of the staff, they believed that they were only “scratching the surface” of what services they needed to offer. Of the 430 young adults who enrolled in the program since its inception in 2002, 87 registered for the GED, 75 took the exam, 45 received their GEDs and 95 have obtained a job. While there has been some success to the program, its success rate could be better.
Case 2 (Bronx) East Side House Settlement (ESHS):
This was the second study, located in Mott Haven, the Nation’s poorest Congressional District. Its population has very high unemployment rates, low graduation rates and very high disconnection rates. The emphasis of the program at East Side House was on relationship building with youths and retention strategies.ESHS incorporated activities like having students call fellow absent classmates, changing their orientation process, providing counseling and making referrals to other programs if needed as techniques to improve student retention and success rates. Their major challenge was in understanding the needs of this demographic in order to effectively support them. Of 262 students in 2005, 37 took the GED test and passed, 33 obtained jobs. Once again, 37 out of 262 is a low percent success rate.
Case 3 (Harlem – Upper Manhattan) El Camino (the Path):
El Camino was a program at The Harlem’s Children Zone (HCZ) in Central Harlem. Central Harlem is one of New York City’s most poor neighborhoods, with a child poverty rate of 39 percent and plagued with several social ills like poor housing, domestic violence, child abuse, failing educational standards etc. Regular attendance to the GED program was a major problem for this program. Being that its disconnected youth had been out of school for longer periods of time, it affected their attendance rates. Also, having an open policy system of admittance made it difficult to effectively cater to students at a consistent rate and diluted the educational effect of the system. Even though HCZ has been nationally honored for being one of the country’s “most effective and innovative community-building and youth development organizations”, and has achieved great success with in-school youth, the director of the program admitted that their original projected outcomes for the program were entirely unrealistic and did not reflect the reality of what it means to work with this population.
Case 4 (Brooklyn) Sesame Flyers International (SFI):
SFI is a nonprofit organization that operates various cultural, recreational and educational youth development programs in and around the Greater East Flatbush community in Brooklyn. It was founded by Caribbean immigrants to offer their children a place and an opportunity to learn about their cultural heritage. The program instituted at SFI was tagged “Get R.I.C.H”, (meaning Reaching Individuals to Change Humanity). The goal of the Get RICH program was to expose youth to different employment skill-building workshops and one-on-one employment counseling. Furthermore, SFI provided programs such as social and recreational activities (basketball and dance), GED classes, a youth employment program, counseling by case workers and peer support. They met three hours a day, four days a week. During these four days, participants got to meet with staff members once a week. They were trained in job readiness skills, resume building, job search skills, interviewing techniques and computer training. They also instituted a Career Make Over cycle of thirteen weeks—six weeks of training and seven weeks of job searching.
According to SFI, their biggest challenge was defining their target population for the Employment Program because according to them, “there were many subgroups embedded within the disconnected youth group”. The Get R.I.C.H program had only delivered services to 33 youth after the completion of their second Career Make Over cycles. They averaged 8 students per cycle per location, for which success data was not released.
Case 5 (Washington Heights – Upper Manhattan) New Heights Neighborhood Center (NHNC):
NHNC is located in Washington Heights/ Inwood section of upper Manhattan, and has the largest enclave of Dominican immigrants in New York City.The Washington Heights region of upper Manhattan houses a community also plagued with high disconnection rates, unemployment and gang violence. The goal of NHNC was to establish a working relationship between disconnected youth and local businesses in the area. It’s main challenge as it identified was understaffing, and the return of students who were seeking educational, instead of employment goals.
Unfortunately, while this organization succeeded in establishing relationships with local organizations for the benefit of their youth, it seemed to be more centered on providing menial jobs and employment for students, instead striving to educate them as well. Sometimes there is an underlying belief that the youths are not really “cut-out” for education, so instead of “wasting time” trying to persuade or encourage them, finding them menial jobs is deemed a better route to results. As reported by YACI, of 487 students served by the end of 2005, 167 obtained jobs, 207 enrolled in a GED program, and only 28 passed the GED exam. While any success is good, the educational component of this program was dismal, and calls into question the long-term benefits of the program.
The HEROES model for success stands for Heritage, Education, Relationship, Opportunity, Entrepreneurship and Sports. One problem of the five case studies and their results was the fact that most of the programs dealt with one or at most three aspects of the HEROES model. This in turn translated to referrals (if done at all) to other programs. The negative implication of this is that youth might get discouraged if the services at the referred program fall short of warming or effective. Another problem was the lack of an effective tracking method. The inability to track students, who even though they obtain their GED might need help obtaining work or applying to college, dilutes the effort invested in helping those youths in the first place.
Also, the pressure to raise adequate funds by many of these organizations resulted in a redirection of focus for many of them. In a bid to stay afloat financially, programs gradually start to treat participants as statistics/data necessary for fundraising, instead of individuals with colluded problems in need of help. This problem is the main reason why many students are increasingly being cared for at a minimal rate. The provision of GED classes and some job readiness program have become the threshold for measuring success of disconnected youth services, which unfortunately have done little to resolve this enormous and growing problem. This is why the implementation and duplication of the HEROES model cannot be over-emphasized.