It's Back to School Time, but Not for All of Our Youth

So much seems to be happening within federal education policy at the moment – last Friday, President Obama announced his ESEA Waiver program and this week he gears up for his back to school speech. His upcoming speech on the new school-year will be something I’m sure many of our students, educators, parents and other stakeholders will tune in to watch. What will the President say? Has his vision for educational achievement in America shifted in any way? How will we reflect and react to what he may share? All these questions ultimately lead me to also ask the following – Will he also address our disconnected youth in any way and will they be watching? These are critical questions given that the President has an opportunity to shed some light on what’s being done for youth who 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, he proposed the American Jobs Act which includes the Pathways to Work Fund for low-income youth; hopefully he will emphasize the need to do even more for our young people. Thus, for all the conversations that are taking place on ESEA, college access, and affordability, we must remain committed to ensuring that disconnected youth are not forgotten in policy conversations.

This is even more critical given how the recession continues to maintain its grip on our economy thus impacting employment rates and poverty. In a recent blog post by Kisha Bird, we were given 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.

To add to this, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a national unemployment rate of 9.1% for August 2011, with 26 states and the District of Columbia reporting increases in joblessness.

Given these recent national statistics, it shouldn’t take much more to convince policymakers that federal investments for children, families and youth should be protected at all costs. Furthermore, advocates for disconnected youth need to rally behind a message that frames the imperative of protecting (and expanding) effective programs that help diverse youth improve their academic performance, identify career aspirations and strengthen employer-desired skills to achieve their goals. In a sense, we must continue to guide our policymakers and practitioners in setting the stage for pathways that reconnect youth with education and workforce readiness.

This has always been a critical issue, and one often overlooked when speaking about K-12 education policy and college readiness. But there is no doubt that 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. While several lawmakers are calling for cuts in discretionary programs during tough economic times, it’s actually the opposite approach needs to be pursued: With the loss of home values accompanied with cutbacks in income, families across the nation have to tighten their budgets but which is exactly why the federal government must loosen its own spending (in order to offset the cutbacks that Americans are experiencing). We will have to wait and see what happens with the Super Committee but the deal they ultimately reach could further devastate opportunities to reconnect youth.

With the goal of concluding this blog post with a positive note, we must highlight the fact that we do have current policy efforts being done in order to reconnect youth: 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 post secondary credential, and a family sustaining career. 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. By bringing together local stakeholders, coordinating resources, and filling the disparate gaps in services, the RAISE UP Act offers a systemic approach to one of the nation's most troubling problems.

Senator Bernard Sanders (I-VT) has also done his part to help reconnect youth by introducing the Secondary Schools Reentry Act of 2011, which amends the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to increase the role of State educational agencies and local educational agencies in implementing secondary school reentry programs and reaching out to and re-engaging disconnected youth in a secondary education program that leads to the attainment of a secondary school diploma. In essence, the Secondary School Reentry Act helps high schools refocus their attention on recovering drop outs, something very few schools pursue.

While we believe it is important to focus on prevention mechanisms to help raise student achievement and improve graduation rates, 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…and bills such as the RAISE UP Act and the Secondary School Reentry Act help accomplish that.

To learn more about either bill, please contact Roberto Viramontes with the First Focus Campaign for Children at [email protected].


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