Schools labor to build pathways to work as youth employment drops

Schools labor to build pathways to work as youth employment drops

Michele Ellson

It’s lunchtime at Encinal High School, and Mary Clarke-Miller is working to keep the noise level in her classroom low enough for her to talk about the high school’s newish MAD Academy, a small “school within a school” that offers the 47 youths enrolled in it a more intimate learning experience – along with basic job skills and multimedia training.

By offering her charges hands-on learning along with the security of a small group of teachers and students who are together for much of the day, Clarke-Miller is betting she can improve at-risk and other students’ chances of completing high school while offering a clearer path to college and career.

“I did have one student write that recently moved to this country, (who said) the academy gave her a family away from home,” said Clarke-Miller, a technology teacher who once served as associate dean for the Art Institute of California in San Francisco. “For other students, it stopped them from giving up completely on school, because they have four teachers looking after them. Every day.”

“What we’re trying to do is show them that school has a purpose,” she added.

Programs like Clarke-Miller’s could provide critical pathways to career opportunities for youths who are less and less likely to be gaining those experiences on the job, according to a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Children Now that says the employment rate for America’s teens and young adults is at its lowest level since World War II.

Only one-quarter of America’s teens were employed in 2011, down from 46 percent in 2000, the report’s authors said, and half of youths ages 16-24 had jobs in 2011. Some 6.5 million American youths are neither working nor in school, the report says, with black and Latino youths and those from low-income families the hardest hit. And California has the lowest level of teen employment in the nation, with just 18 percent of Californians ages 16-19 working.

The report blames heightened competition for low-wage jobs that once gave teens the chance to gain early work experience from adults who have more skills, along with increasing educational requirements. And it says a lack of early employment experience could have long-lasting implications for youths, taxpayers and American businesses.

This lack of employment costs taxpayers $1.56 trillion and could have long-term consequences for future workers and the economy, according to the report’s authors, who want more funding for programs that boost youths’ employability and better alignment of the resources that do exist.

“We’re challenging our policymakers to think proactively about how we engage youth while they’re still in high school. How do we connect them to careers and pathways that both give them that real-world experience, but also make what’s happening in the classroom feel tangible to them?” said Jessica Mindnich, director of research for Children Now, which is based in Oakland.

The economy’s prolonged slump pushed higher-skilled adults into low-wage retail and fast-food jobs that had previously offered beginning work opportunities for teens, the report says. And employers have upped the amount of education required even for basic jobs, it says, with more than three-quarters of America’s jobs requiring education beyond a high school diploma.

As a result, youths aren’t learning basic workplace skills, the report says, which include reporting to work on time and dressing appropriately for a workplace setting.

Youths who miss out on working early in life are more likely to be unemployed later, the report says, and are less likely to climb to where they’d like to be on the career ladder; those who fail to graduate high school will earn $400,000 less than their high school graduate peers.

In addition to costing taxpayers, that lack of education and training is making America less competitive with other countries, the report says: Despite high unemployment, 30 percent of American companies said they had jobs open for six months or more that they couldn’t fill, according to a survey cited in the report. In eight years, America’s workforce will be short 1.5 million workers with college degrees, the report says, and have a surplus of 6 million people without a high school degree.

The employment numbers come at a time when traditional career technical education and adult schools are on the decline. Here in Alameda, the funding for both programs was slashed when the state cut schools funding and allowed money for those programs to be used by school districts to cover more basic educational expenses.

“When push comes to shove, communities can spend money on what they need and value most. (In) this community, with its extraordinary range of economic and sociocultural diversity – the people who participate the in the decision making don’t value job readiness as much as they value college readiness,” said Alysse Castro, the district's principal of educational options, a job that includes oversight of Island High School and the Alameda Adult School.

Even if money were available, many of the career-path programs that were once staples for high schools – like auto shop – now require a college degree, Assistant Superintendent Sean McPhetridge said; locally, community colleges are partnering with industry to offer the required training. He said the district is trying to use its limited funds to support programs that match both the interest of students and the needs of the marketplace. Alameda High School, for example, offers students programs in sports medicine, marketing and television media intended to lay a foundation for future schooling and work.

“If we want to prepare kids for family wage jobs, that really entails preparing them with a solid academic education and giving them an awareness of what high-skilled, 21st century work looks like,” McPhetridge said.

Castro said efforts to aid students at Island High, Alameda's continuation school, have shifted from an exclusive focus on graduation to providing students basic workplace skills and educating them about training and apprenticeships for living wage jobs.

Exposure to those opportunities is a critical need for youths in low-income families who face barriers to employment their higher-income peers may not. Castro said some of her students have built up large debts seeking training through for-profit institutions when the same training is available for far less at the College of Alameda or other nearby community colleges.

For three years the Alameda Point Collaborative, which houses hundreds of formerly homeless families at Alameda Point, operated a one-acre urban farm that offered the Collaborative’s youths hands-on work experience. Now that the grant funding for the program has lapsed, leaders of the Collaborative - which has an array of job training programs for adults - are seeking out other employment opportunities for their youths, who have limited access to transportation and who often shoulder more family responsibilities than the average teen.

“Making that decision and feeling supported by their family to make that decision is a challenge,” said the Collaborative’s youth services manager, Haneefah Shauibe, who said the youths she works with are capable and motivated to work.

Mindnich said efforts like the Oakland schools’ linked learning program have been shown to reduce high school dropout rates and to increase the number of students who have finished the coursework needed to enter the state’s colleges and universities. Grant funding allowed the district’s high schools to set up academies focused on 27 different career paths, including computer technology, health care, law and green energy.

In addition to traditional book learning and technical education, the academies offer work-based learning and supports, according to a description of the programs on the district’s website.

Now in its second year, Encinal High’s MAD Academy offers project-based learning in media arts, animation and game design that’s connected to more traditional school subjects. In addition to basic workplace skills that include working in groups and meeting deadlines, Clarke-Miller is building mentoring and internship programs in an effort to give students the on-the-job experiences they need along with a real-world sense of how their schooling can lead to bigger and better things.

She is also working on a pilot for a computer science program similar to the MAD Academy that, if successful, could be replicated to offer additional career pathway programs at Alameda’s other schools.

“It’s project based learning,” Clarke-Miller said. “They’re not asked to repeat facts in a place of work. They’re going to be asked to use their critical thinking skills and reasoning skills to get the job done.”