I have voiced my share of concerns over the outgoing administration’s policies over the past 12 years. One area that I have been particularly vocal about in this column is how New York City is dealing with the crisis of out of school, out of work young people - of whom there are about 185,000 between the ages of 16 and 24.
We are in danger of creating a generation of jobless Americans. The long-term reason is a lack of education and job skills that have produced millions of these “disconnected youth” across the country. This is especially true of young people of color. Nationally, and in New York City, only about half of black and Latino students graduate from high school. In our city, disconnected youth are overwhelmingly black and Latino young people.
Although we first called them disconnected youth, now the Obama administration and others are encouraging us to use the term “opportunity youth.” I don’t like the term; it smacks of condescension and does not explain their situation. But it’s fine with me as long as we are expending efforts on more than just language. We need to make sure that these young people have real opportunities to return to school and/or start careers.
The current administration has said the right things about opportunity youth and, in some cases, has put its money where its mouth is. Mayor Bloomberg made this population one of the three targets of his Commission and later Center on Economic Opportunity (CEO), and he has supported a series of new programs to help them get skills, build their resumes, and get on career paths.
One of my favorite efforts is CUNY Prep, a specialized program for about 300 16 to 18 year-olds in the Bronx who have dropped out of high school. CUNY Prep is not just a high school equivalency program (we used to call them GED programs, but the GED will be replaced by a new exam in New York next year), but a college program, in which high school equivalency is viewed as just a step on the path to college.
CUNY Prep has some of the highest rates of equivalency passage and college enrollment of any program in the city, and it even places staff on campus to support its graduates once they have enrolled in college. It’s designed well, like all good programs, to reach dropouts interested in reconnecting to education or careers. In essence, this program is saying: “come for your high school equivalency, stay for the preparation to go beyond that to college or careers.”
Understanding that opportunity youth are diverse, with different needs and abilities, the CEO has also created programs for young people seeking jobs through the Young Adult Internship Program (YAIP). This program offers youth that valuable first job from which they can earn money, build skills, and, perhaps most importantly, have something substantial to put on their resumes.
And through YAIP, the city has offered a way for community-based organizations to provide services to those young adults who our schools have failed so miserably - their reading levels are frighteningly low – that they are not ready to succeed in jobs or even participate in a high school equivalency course. All of these programs should continue under the next mayor.
Scale Up Programs
But more importantly, we need to scale them up. The CEO has shown that these programs can work, but the investments of the current administration have been far too small. Each of these initiatives, as well as others that I have not mentioned, serve too few young people. The next mayor will need to move from investing in promising pilot programs to a much more robust system of supports for young adults who are trying to get back on track.
At the very least, the current candidates for mayor should pledge to continue what is working. We have heard little about this problem from those running for mayor. Too often, effective programs get cut when new mayors want to make their own mark. We can’t let that happen. We must keep supporting CUNY Prep and the range of other new CEO programs that are working to reconnect our youth. And we must bring them to a scale commensurate to the problem of 185,000 wasted lives.