Reengaging Disconnected Youth: Keys to Success from National Leaders

Published oct. 01, 2012

Ramean Clowney, an incredible 19-year old from Philadelphia who was formerly disengaged from school, was one of several members of the new National Council of Young Leaders to testify at last month’s Opportunity Nation Summit. He shared that one major reason for his success today is the Philadelphia Youth Network and One Bright Ray Fairhill Community High School—programs that reengage youth and enable them to graduate from both high school and college. Despite a rocky past including school and family challenges, Ramean was able to fulfill his dreams of graduation and is now attending community college thanks to new Back on Track Through College pathways.

The demographics and economics of our country today make it imperative to pave the way for many more students like Ramean, rather than allowing their dreams to be halted in elementary or secondary school with few job and earning prospects over a lifetime.

There are approximately 6.7 million young people in America today who are not in school or the labor force. Fortunately there is a recent surge of national energy around finding ways to reengage these students, including efforts by Opportunity Nation, the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions, the White House Council for Community Solutions, recent papers released by prominent national organizations such as Civic Enterprises and FSG, and an important Request for Information (RFI) that the Administration and the U.S. Department of Education released this past summer asking the general public some timely questions about what strategies work to improve outcomes for this large group of young people.

Jobs for the Future submitted recommendations to this RFI; they’re based on what we’ve learned from working with model communities, such as Philadelphia, over the past decade. These efforts reveal that, while disconnected youth are a heterogeneous group, effective pathways proven to help them graduate from high school and succeed in college have several things in common:

  • Community buy-in and full engagement:
    • The involvement of both secondary and postsecondary institutions, as well as philanthropy and intermediary organizations focused on youth and community outcomes
    • The support of elected officials, and business and civic leaders
  • Pathways that include clear on-ramps into and through postsecondary education from multiple entry points
  • Curricula that accelerate students’ skill levels, not just remediation
  • Curricula that include 21st-century skill building (e.g. problem solving, critical thinking, digital learning)
  • Navigation and supports to help students through transitions towards credentials and family-sustaining careers

This is incredibly challenging work for all involved. The Department’s RFI asked how federal policies could make it easier for communities to tackle such reengagement work. To support communities building and sustaining effective pathways, federal policies must allow the flexibility to use interim measures, facilitate data sharing and streamlining across programs, and align eligibility and uses of funds requirements across funding streams. And we need state and local policies that mirror and support such flexibility.

The Office of Management and Budget and youth-focused staff from several federal agencies are compiling the common themes among all of the RFI responses, which we hope will provide a strong overall set of recommendations for policy and practice moving forward. As a nation, we know more than ever before about what produces real results and helps disconnected youth succeed in education and careers.

We applaud the U.S. Department of Education and the Administration for opening up this national conversation about what works, and we applaud the many other national organizations and foundations that are focusing laser-like attention on disconnected youth and elevating those conversations. We hope that this truly is a “moment”—a convergence of momentum to improve prospects for disconnected youth around the nation—that lasts far into the future. Our nation needs such a moment, and our young generations deserve it.

Kathryn Young is JFF's director of national education policy. Follow her @kathrynhyoung