"It Broke Me Up into Pieces and Put Me Back Together"

Published dec. 09, 2011

"It broke me up into pieces and put me back together."

That’s how a young woman described her experience at Training Futures in Northern Virginia when I visited there in 2009. She was enrolled in an internship at a local company, handsomely dressed and beaming with confidence when I sat across the table from her during a visit one afternoon in late spring 2009. Yet just a couple of years earlier, having dropped out of school she was desperately looking for guidance in her life and a job to provide for her family.

Training Futures was one of several dozen programs I visited to identify the features of those that successfully reengage young people who’ve dropped out of school and help them get into postsecondary education and complete a credential with value in the labor market. Most of those I visited are part of networks created by YouthBuild USA and the National Youth Employment Coalition. As this young woman aptly said, such “Back on Track” programs do something remarkable for off-track and out-of-school young people: they break them into pieces and put them back together.

As a nation, we need to understand much more about how effective programs accomplish this. And, ultimately, we need to figure out how to sustain and scale such programs to give the millions of young people who have left school a real shot at a productive future. Our Back on Track designs lay out key operational features to help communities spawn more such schools and programs. Sets of tools are now in the works that program or school leaders can use to deepen their understanding of these features and embed these practices in their communities.

As soon as you step in the doors of programs such as Training Futures, you get a sense that this is a special place. Evidence of this culture can be found everywhere. School artifacts, the level of staff professionalism, the cleanliness and orderliness of the building, students’ daily routines all convey seriousness about education and a sense of purpose and community. They mark a program that is a combination of high expectations, high autonomy and high accountability.  Some former dropouts find such an environment restrictive and thus may be resistant at first, but like the young woman described earlier, most quickly adapt and thrive. Many of them talk about their schools as family where on one hand they are loved and supported by a network of caring adults and on the other they are pushed to work hard and perform well. They see that as a winning combination.

The sad truth is that millions of young people across the nation have either dropped out of school or are not making progress toward high school graduation. Breaking them into pieces and putting them back together is ultimately about reigniting their educational and career aspirations. It entails committed staff, supportive leadership, and a strong school culture, one that sets out to be radically different from the ones many students dropped out of in the first place.

But if we are ever to reach scale with such programming, we will also have to tackle the policies and funding issues that bedevil schools or programs committed to serving dropouts. What does adequate funding look like for these programs? What is a fair funding formula to enable these schools to effectively serve their students? These are essential yet complex questions that JFF and its partners are investigating. I will keep you updated on the progress of this work in the months to come... so stay tuned.