Maybe Servon Lewis was destined to beat the odds all along. It just took him a while to figure out how. Growing up in the Bronx with his hardworking parents, four brothers, a sister, and two cousins, Lewis dreamed of a better life beyond the tough streets. He applied himself in school, earned good grades, and steered clear of the gangs around the housing project he called home. But when a near-fatal truck accident left his father permanently disabled, Lewis’s family struggled to get by on public assistance. Lewis finished high school and set out to find steady work to support his parents. For four years, he languished, holding only part-time jobs at minimum wage with no benefits. “I tried and tried to get a decent job, but after a while I just sort of gave up,” Lewis, now twenty-four, explained recently. “I felt embarrassed and defeated, and I stopped looking for something better.”

Encouraged by his mother, he applied to Per Scholas, a nonprofit job training program providing free technology training and career development in low-income communities. Lewis attended intensive, hands-on classes five days a week, seven hours a day. But just as important, Per Scholas offered the mentoring, life skills, and basic necessities—a Metro transit card, a new business suit—essential to boosting Lewis’s self-esteem and preparing him for job interviews. He graduated last year, and quickly landed a paid IT/desktop support internship with Neuberger Berman, a leading global asset management firm, as the result of a partnership between Per Scholas and the firm. Today, Lewis holds a full-time IT position in the firm’s New Jersey office—at a salary he admits he never dreamed of making. He owns a car, leases an apartment, and has enough to give back to his close-knit family. “My life has changed, and I’m never going to stop working hard. It’s what got me here,” he says.

Lewis is one of the lucky ones. As many as 5.8 million young Americans—one in seven young adults aged sixteen to twenty-four—are neither working nor in school. Millions more, like Servon Lewis once was, are trapped in jobs that make it tough for them to get ahead. According to a study by Civic Enterprises and America’s Promise Alliance, two-fifths of these struggling young people come from families who are middle class or better.

As Richard Florida chronicles (“The Living-in-the-Basement Generation”), the inability of many young adults to pursue economic independence comes with enormous and long-lasting costs. While part of this phenomenon is the result of the Great Recession, many young people are struggling because they’re simply not equipped to succeed. In central Iowa, for example, 17 percent of young people are “disconnected” from school and steady work. At the same time, “there are more jobs—good jobs—in Iowa than we have Iowans to fill,” laments Rob Denson, president of the Des Moines Area Community College and chair of Opportunity Iowa.

The good news in this otherwise dismal landscape is that many efforts now under way in communities across the country are effectively helping young adults succeed in school, job training, and, ultimately, a meaningful career.

The five case studies below highlight some of the most effective programs that could serve as national models for creating new opportunities for young adults to succeed.

1. PENCIL:Pairing School and Business Leaders

PENCIL’s founders understood early that business leaders have a critical role to play in improving public education. Founded in 1995 in New York City, PENCIL pairs prominent business leaders with public school principals in an effort to help students from elementary school to high school—more than 215,000 youngsters this year—to learn in the classroom and to excel in the workplace.

PENCIL’s model targets five key “focus areas” that impact student achievement: school leadership, family engagement, student engagement, college and career readiness, and school infrastructure. And PENCIL’s Fellows Program, a career development model for promising juniors and seniors that culminates with a paid, full-time summer internship at leading businesses across New York City, is an important component of its college- and career-readiness work.

In surveys of principals and executives participating in the program, both educators and employers say they’ve observed marked benefits from the program, including better attendance at parent-teacher conferences and improved academic performance among students who regularly attend PENCIL activities.

On the strength of its success, PENCIL has expanded to other cities, and now operates affiliate programs in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Rochester, New York.

2. Gateway to College:Second Chances for High School Dropouts

Gateway to College is a national network of colleges that offers dropouts (and students on the verge of dropping out) a chance to earn both a high school diploma and college credit. Since its launch at Oregon’s Portland Community College in 2000, Gateway to College has been replicated at forty-three colleges in twenty-three states—its rapid growth fueled by keen interest and funding from some of the nation’s top education foundations. In 2012, Gateway reached about 3,000 students across the country.

The typical Gateway student enrolls at age seventeen, having left high school with a GPA of just 1.4 and fewer than half the credits needed to graduate. Since most students require more than just academic instruction, Gateway’s model combines classroom teaching with a range of wraparound social and emotional supports needed by many at-risk students trying to finish high school and transition into college. Those who excel in the first year rejoin the general student population in year two.

Gateway has shown far better than average rates of success in helping dropouts achieve their GED. On average, graduates also earn thirty-two college credits, well on the way to an associate’s degree.

3. LaGuardia Community College: Going Beyond the GED

Many young people find that a traditional “youth” program is no longer relevant to their needs. Older young adults in particular aren’t likely to enroll in programs for teenagers. In New York, some are finding great success with the GED Bridge to Health and Business program (GED Bridge), which takes a new approach to adult education. GED Bridge’s “contextualized curriculum” prepares lower-skilled individuals to pass their equivalency exam and continue on to specialized college and career training programs. Students receive added help with career advisement, financial aid, and social supports.

According to an initial evaluation by the nonprofit education and social policy research organization MDRC, one year after enrollment, GED Bridge students were more than twice as likely to have completed the course and passed the GED exam than students in a traditional GED prep class, and more than three times as likely to have enrolled in college.

As Dan Bloom, a longtime MDRC poverty researcher, notes, programs like GED Bridge can provide a missing link in the current range of solutions for older high school dropouts. In today’s competitive labor market, those with a GED alone face tough odds. The need for stronger pathways to post-secondary education has never been greater—and the urgency will only increase in 2014, with a new national GED exam that puts a high premium on college readiness.

4. Roca:“Truth, Trust & Transformation”

Guided by a motto of “Truth, Trust & Transformation,” Roca has worked in the Boston area for twenty-five years to salvage one young life at a time. The program seeks out the most difficult, challenging young men for whom other programs have failed, and pushes them to identify, confront, and overcome destructive behaviors and learn the skills they need to reengage in society, education, and the economy. Participants—aged seventeen to twenty-four—include convicted felons and gang members, refugees and immigrants, youth in the foster care system, and single parents. To date, Roca has helped more than 25,000 of these young men make positive, sometimes profound, changes.

Roca accomplishes this feat through a unique intervention model. For two intensive years, clients move through a “stage-based program” of activities and case management, starting with relationship building and life skills and progressing through education and eventual employment. Two more years are devoted to individualized follow-up.

Roca’s intervention model has shown significant results. In 2012, Roca served 409 very high-risk young men, retaining 78 percent through the year in educational and prevocational efforts or transitional employment. Of those who completed the intensive component of the model last year, 90 percent have had no new arrests, 100 percent have had no new technical violations, 79 percent were on track to retain employment for at least six months, and 70 percent demonstrated education gains.

Over time, the dividends are more dramatic: participation in Roca’s model resulted in a 67 percent drop in repeat arrests after five years and a 100 percent increase in employment compared to other high-risk groups.

Now acclaimed as a national model, Roca has expanded to Springfield, Massachusetts, and last year was chosen to help lead a “pay for success” experiment in the state, which rewards organizations only if they deliver proven results. Roca’s model will be carefully studied by Harvard University researchers, and the organization will be rewarded for delivering better social outcomes and cost savings—a virtual guarantee, given its track record to date.

5. Year Up:Nonprofits Building Key Skills

With supporters from Wall Street to Silicon Valley and Capitol Hill, Year Up has quickly become one of the most promising models empowering disadvantaged youth to reach their potential. During its intensive one-year training and education program, participants spend six months building core professional and technical skills—IT/help desk support, network support, and so on—in a classroom. The second six months focus on applying these skills through an internship with one of Year Up’s 250-plus corporate and government partners, which include companies such as Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, and LinkedIn.

The program stresses academic and professional rigor, setting high expectations for quality of work and professional behavior, and relies on a wide network of staff mentors, social workers, and community-based partners to guide young people along the way.

Significantly, Year Up focuses on higher-achieving and motivated disconnected young adults, specifically low-income urban youth, aged eighteen to twenty-four, who already have a high school diploma or GED. Through the program, they can earn up to twenty-three college credits and a weekly stipend. Some 1,900 students participate annually at Year Up sites in ten metro areas across the U.S.

The outcomes are impressive. Short-term studies show that 84 percent of graduates are employed or attending college full-time within four months of completing the program, employed Year Up grads earn an average of $15 an hour (equal to $30,000 a year), more than 95 percent of interns meet or exceed employers’ expectations, and nine out of ten corporate partners would recommend the program to peers.

Year Up is committed to building more robust evidence about what’s working—and refining what’s not. The program was recently selected to participate in a flagship ten-year federal evaluation—the Innovative Strategies for Increasing Self-Sufficiency study—sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Not surprisingly, expansion plans for the program are under way. Year Up aims to serve 2,500 young adults yearly by 2016 and open at least three more sites to bring its successful model to more needy youth.

“The common belief system in this country was that if you got to the age of eighteen and hadn’t made it, you were basically a lost cause,” said Year Up CEO Gerald Chertavian, who founded the program in 2000 after a career as a tech entrepreneur. Too many inner-city kids, including the ones he befriended and mentored in New York and Boston, were seen as economic and social liabilities. A dozen years into the Year Up model, Chertavian says he is proud that the program “has started to change the perception of those young people as economic assets rather than liabilities” with employers and policymakers alike.

To ensure that more young people have access to successful programs like these, policymakers should support a dramatic infusion of federal funding to support these efforts. But with fiscal and political realities likely to make this difficult, there’s also plenty that can happen outside Washington.

Employers, for example, are taking a growing interest in addressing the opportunity gap. Employers, after all, are the end users of workforce talent and thereby stand to gain or lose the most from the quality of the labor pool. Several prominent groups (including Opportunity Nation, Year Up, and MENTOR) are working with the Ad Council to develop a national public service campaign, due out in early 2014, that aims to shift public perceptions of vulnerable youth who would otherwise be overlooked by employers. This campaign will seek to portray “opportunity youth”—young people who are neither in school nor working—as “essential economic assets,” and make the case for altering mainstream business practices so employers large and small consider investing in these young adults.

Related to this effort, the new Employment Pathways Project will be launching an online resource library for employers and policymakers that includes hands-on tools for recruiting and hiring youth, proven best practices and case studies, and even a zip code locator to identify local mentoring opportunities and community partners who can facilitate training and hiring. At the same time, organizations such as United Way Worldwide, the National League of Cities, and the Aspen Institute’s new Forum for Community Solutions have all expanded efforts to help communities share best practices and advocate for policy change.

The dramatic rise of youth unemployment in recent years means that finding the right solutions has become more urgent than ever. Through a firm national commitment to supporting effective programs that create opportunity for youth, policymakers can ensure that success stories like Servon Lewis are the rule, not the exception.

To read more from our November/December 2013 cover package on opportunity in America, click here.

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