This spring marked a moment that is easily the most significant of my professional life.
Thirty years ago, I started working directly with young people in low-income communities to help them find jobs and go to college. I committed myself to this work because I saw their brilliance, and I saw what can emerge if they are given the tools they need and have relationships with caring adults who can help them blossom into healthy young adults. I had also seen what happens when they are denied the resources they need because of poverty and structural racism.
That commitment eventually led me to JFF, where I am part of the Advancement Unit’s Reconnection Strategies and Designs team, whose goal is to improve the life trajectories of low-income young adults ages 16 to 24 who aspire to succeed but are locked out of the labor market—a population that includes opportunity youth.
For the past 10 years, my colleagues and I have been working in partnership with innovative community-based organizations, educators, trainers, and employers in seven communities across the country to develop a model for re-engaging opportunity youth and getting them on paths to postsecondary credentials. We call our model Back on Track, and we have helped a number of organizations and community collaboratives around the country, including many in the Aspen Institute’s Opportunity Youth Forum, adopt and adapt it.
The postsecondary enrollment rate of Opportunity Works opportunity youth was twice as high as that of opportunity youth in a comparison group.
Metrics of Success
In 2016, JFF and the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions won a federal Social Innovation Fund award for our Opportunity Works initiative and matched that funding with philanthropic support that gave us and our partner communities sufficient resources to fully implement the Back on Track model. That work has been rewarding, and we felt we were making a difference in people’s lives, and then last spring we received confirmation that that was the case.
The Urban Institute conducted a third-party evaluation of Back on Track, and the results knocked our socks off.
Talent for the Future: Back on Track (BOT) Pathways
BOT pathways help young adults develop the skills they need to move along a path to career advancement
The evaluators found that the postsecondary enrollment rate of Opportunity Works opportunity youth was twice as high as that of opportunity youth in a comparison group. They also found that, among young men of color, the rate was six times higher for the Opportunity Works cohort.
On top of that, despite the barriers to postsecondary attainment that opportunity youth face, the Opportunity Works participants had a first-to-second-semester persistence rate that is roughly equal to that of community college students overall.
As you can imagine, we have been jumping for joy ever since.
Improving Lives, Contributing to Research
We and our partners had not only helped improve the lives of thousands of young people who aspire to succeed but are locked out of opportunity; we had also contributed to what has long been a very thin evidence base on what works for this population.
I’m grateful to everyone who helped make these achievements possible. That includes the JFF team members who guided the work and our partners in Boston, Hartford, New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Francisco, California’s Santa Clara County, and Washington’s South King County, which is just south of Seattle.
[Reaching] all of the young people who deserve the same shot at career-track employment is our next imperative.
Our partners assembled community-based organizations, postsecondary institutions, school districts, employers, and the young people themselves to create seamless pathways into postsecondary education. They also worked with us to identify a robust comparison group for the evaluation. And, of course, the employees of all of those organizations worked directly with the young people and showed them, daily, that they were committed to their growth and success.
Challenges Lie Ahead
But as excited as we are for the positive outcomes of the Opportunity Works initiative, we know that we all need to dedicate ourselves to meeting big challenges that still lie ahead.
The stalwart organizations that helped these young adults enter postsecondary education did not have the funding they needed to ensure that the students persisted to graduation. And complicating matters is the fact that these under-resourced organizations also play a crucial role helping students who face inevitable poverty-related roadblocks like homelessness or unstable jobs.
Above all, while we’re proud of our achievements, we recognize that the number of young people we’re reaching is a pitifully small percentage of opportunity youth across the country.
Scaling Back on Track to reach all of the young people who deserve the same shot at career-track employment is our next imperative. It is work that will take us on a path to making a difference in the lives of the 4.5 million opportunity youth and in the economic health of this nation.