Chicago Grapples With Reengaging Youth Who Are Not in School or the Workforce

Chalkbeat Chicago

Last winter, Alonte Wilson had written off ever getting a high school diploma. He was 18, woefully short on credits and full of uncertainty about his future.

Then he got a series of texts from an outreach worker at Breakthrough Urban Ministries, a nonprofit on Chicago’s West Side:

“Here’s something that can help you so you’re not just sitting in the house doing nothing.”

Wilson could get another crack at finishing high school, the texts promised. He could also receive therapy, mentoring, and job readiness training — and get paid $250 a week while he was at it.....

.....Nationally, experts and advocates hoped the pandemic would bring new energy and federal money to address the issue of out-of-school, out-of-work youth, as it did in the aftermath of the Great Recession, said Louisa Treskon, senior associate at the think tank MDRC. Largely, that hasn’t been the case. 

“So many young people now have heightened needs and are struggling,” Treskon said. “That has overshadowed the more specific needs of opportunity youth.”

Chicago, however, set out to try a new approach. The district’s new Back to Our Future program launched last year aims to do “relentless engagement” — intensive outreach to persuade youth disengaged from school for more than a year and their families to give the program a chance.....

.....Nationally, the relatively small number of reengagement programs that have been rigorously studied have generally yielded modest increases in high school completion and earnings.

“There’s been this thread of, ‘Nothing really works,’” said Treskon, the MDRC expert.

In fairness, she notes, these programs work with youth with extremely high needs, many of whom have experienced trauma and other hardships. Programs are often too short-lived to effectively bend the trajectories of young people’s lives. Few cities have perfected what experts believe are all-important “smooth handoffs” — partnerships between the nonprofits and government agencies that together can meet this group’s complex needs, free of competition for grants and other funding.

In Back to Our Future’s first 12 weeks of intensive support, Treskon says, the program seems to deliver the gold standard: engagement with families, trauma-informed mentoring and counseling, a stipend, and “soft skills” job readiness training. The big test is what happens after that.....

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