America has a Youth Engagement Problem

The cry for more youth program opportunities can be heard clear across America. Each year, advocates point out the growing needs of youth and young adults and the lack of programs and services to meet those needs. I, too, am guilty. My call of foul at the 250,000 federally funded program slots for the 5.

4 million out-of-school youth is a staple of my presentations to policymakers across the U.S. "How can we expect any progress in reducing gang violence and youth unemployment, or expect to quell the dropout rate if we only have enough program slots to serve 3% of the 14-21 year old eligible population!" Many echo my outcry, and I usually continue by addressing the real crux of the problem.

"We don't have a gang problem in the United States; we have a youth opportunity problem!" I have touted this cry from boardrooms in Seattle to the hoods in South Florida, always receiving a response of thunderous applause. Despite the strong audience affirmation, I still find myself walking away and feeling as though something is missing. Why? Many of us were part of the movement to bring positive youth development to youth workforce programs across the U.S., making sure we serve youth differently than adults, and taking into account their developmental needs, assets, and the different stages of their development. Surely there is no disputing the fact that there is a need for more programs and opportunities for young people to grow into healthy, positive adults.

So, what is lacking? Where is the breakdown? Despite our best efforts at incorporating positive youth development we forgot one thing: incorporating youth. The sad reality is that many of our youth development and youth workforce programs struggle to get youth in the doors. Yes, I know this is a subject that we do not like to discuss. However, it is a subject that must be raised in the research and policy agenda in order to reach a viable solution.

Of the millions of youth who desperately need education and workforce development in their lives, few are turning to the programs and services that can lead to better lives and opportunities. Those that do come often don't stay. Now I know a few of you are crying foul. However, it is my experience that those of you who cry foul are able to offer youth $300 or more every two weeks for attending.

In fact, engagement has translated to money, at least for some. In this fact lies our advocacy dilemma. Advocating for more money and resources in a system that cannot engage the youth it is intended to serve is a lesson in futility. School Accountability: What about us? If the educational system is forced to be more accountable, so should youth development and workforce programs.

Let me break it down like a fraction - No Child Left Behind is exposing the incredible achievement gap that currently exists within the United States. The National Governors Association recommendation for states to recalculate dropout rates has exposed a national travesty: 50% of African-American and Latino youth drop out of high school. The exposure doesn't stop there however. The Beginning Post-secondary Students Longitudinal Study reported that only 31% of students who entered community college in 1995-1996 with the intention of earning a degree or certificate had met their goal six years later. For African-American and Latino students the rate is much lower.

As if that weren't enough of a factor, Congress is trying to rescind 65 million of WIA funds partly because of unspent funds. While there are many excuses for why funds are unspent, the reality is that many programs have no youth to spend them on. It seems that despite the weeding out of those who are not serious, along with those who constantly whine or refuse to work with adjudicated youth, or youth in the foster care system, programs still can't get it right.

Once again, the question hangs out there-why? Why? Perhaps the most important program element is engagement. Without effective and consistent engagement efforts, programs can never meet expected outcomes. The primary challenge youth service providers face in implementing effective engagement strategies is to stop blaming engagement difficulties on young people's deficiencies, but instead recognize that it is the deficiencies of the programs themselves. Building a youth engagement system in much different from incorporating positive youth development principles into program design. A youth engagement system is a commitment to a set of principles and practices sustained by policy and sufficient resources, dedicated to creating an authentic and culturally competent service delivery system where young people feel valued as stakeholders and are compelled to invest in active and meaningful participation towards mutual goals.

In short, we need a youth driven workforce preparation system, not an employer driven one? time and statistics have proven that's not working! In order to do this, organizations need to build and strengthen the routes (and in some cases open them) for young people to be fully engaged in the decisions, opportunities and challenges affecting their communities. One of the largest miscalculations that youth employment programs make is to attempt to provide services to the at-risk populations without first developing an intimate understanding of what truly motivates and interests this special group. In The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives on High School Dropouts, Bill Gates tells us the most reported reason why youth are dropping out of school. They are bored with education! Sounds like something we could have figured out on our own, right? Probably, however that is only part of the story. What Mr.

Microsoft failed to tell us is that they are not bored with education; they are just bored with the education and job training we subject them to. Youth are literally handing us the manual to how to help them become successful, but is anyone reading the pages? Not only is it time to realize that up until this point, the method used to increase youth engagement is not just flawed, it's broken. If we want to make a change, it is we that must make changes, using their lead as a path to getting it right.

Edward DeJesus is one of the most sought after speakers on the issue of youth engagement and development. For the past 15 years, he has been helping organizations improve student recruitment, retention and engagement. To learn more about Ed, visit http://www.ydrf.com

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