Addressing the Opportunity Gap: Reengaging Out-Of-School Youth

Last month, as a part of OVAE’s work with the Interagency Forum on Disconnected Youth, I had the opportunity to attend a national Reengagement Plus convening in Los Angeles, California. I return from that event renewed and inspired by the work going on across the country to reengage youth back into education and employment. In recent years, efforts to prevent students from dropping out have significantly improved graduation rates both nationally and locally. Unfortunately, there are still approximately 1.8 million young adults ages 16-21 that are not enrolled in school or have not finished their high school education. Research shows that many out-of-school youth want to return to school, but are uncertain how to do so and are fearful they will not succeed once they get there. Helping these young people find alternative pathways to graduation and meaningful employment opportunities is a critical challenge facing municipal leaders today.

On December 12, educators, workforce and social service professionals, community based organizations and state and local officials gathered in Los Angeles to address issues related to reconnecting youth who have dropped out of high school to education and employment. Topics addressed during the convening ranged from a broad discussion of how to get a reengagement effort started to specific, discrete, interventions proven to work with this population of young people. Sponsored by the National League of Cities (NLC), the National Youth Employment Coalition and Zero Dropouts, the Reengagement Plus Convening hosted over 150 participants representing 22 cities across the nation–the largest gathering to date.

Approaches to reengagement vary, but all share a common goal of reconnecting young people with education and employment opportunities. Some have established central locations in targeted neighborhoods where young people can get the advice and support they need to reenroll in school. Others employ reengagement specialists or “navigators” to reach out to youth directly and make referrals to schools or alternative programs that can respond to each individual’s needs. Central to all of these efforts is collaboration and coordination–essential components to any comprehensive dropout reduction strategy. The reengagement plus initiatives highlighted at this convening demonstrate the power of cross-systems partnerships to improve the lives of some of our nation’s most vulnerable young people.

For the past two years the NLC has been developing and growing a national, Dropout Reengagement Peer Network. This network, while relatively new, is demonstrating that attention to this population of young people and the efforts undertaken by these professionals are beginning to pay off. Collectively, dropout reengagement centers in 14 cities have reached out to 21,000 young people over the past two school years. Of those, 6,000 have re-enrolled, and 73 percent completed a full additional year of school or had graduated one year later.

The event also included the release of a Dropout Reengagement Municipal Action Guide from NLC. This guide, which adds to the growing body of work in the area of reengagement, presents nationwide models and strategies city leaders can pursue to help dropouts finish high school and move along a path to postsecondary education and good jobs.  “As a growing number of cities commit to successful outcomes for all youth, it’s exciting to see more infrastructure for reengaging and supporting dropouts come on line”, said Andrew Moore, senior fellow at NLC responsible for their Dropout Prevention and Recovery program.

 Annie Blackledge is a Casey Family Programs Senior Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education