Simran Sidhu has heard all the names for the students she serves at YouthBuilld Philadelphia, a school and training program for high school dropouts—disengaged, disconnected, hardest to serve, at risk youth. But there’s one name that she thinks fits best: Opportunity youth.
That’s because Sidhu, the enthusiastic executive director of YouthBuild for the last 14 years, sees in these students something even they themselves might not—the opportunity to become productive, self-confident, self-supporting members of society. “They just need the right opportunities,” Sidhu says.
YouthBuild Philly, a local outpost of a national organization, is not like other schools. Yes, it provides the opportunity for students to get a high school diploma. But graduation is not the end game or even, necessarily, a goal for everyone. The 220 students enrolled at YouthBuild on North Broad Street are the ones considered the highest-hanging fruit: 18 to 21 year old high school dropouts, not welcomed back into regular public schools, but not quite of age for adult education programs. Some will graduate and head to college; others will leave for entry-level jobs in construction, childcare, retail, or health. Each is also an AmeriCorps member, doing service in the community.
“If you know someone who wants a life, send them here,” says Felicia Hurt, who plans to attend college next year. “They’ll get a life for sure.”
“There’s a mindset shift that happens here from ‘I am a problem,’ to ‘I am a problem-solver in the community and I am worthy of investment because I am of value to society,’” says Sidhu.
YouthBuild started in a church basement in Bella Vista in 1992 with around 20 students. In 1997, it became one of the city’s first charter schools, which allowed it to build a curriculum and graduation requirements that fit both its mission and its population. (It is undergoing its fourth charter renewal process this spring.) The School District now provides about 40 percent of its $6 million budget; the rest comes from Workforce Investment Funds, AmeriCorps, private donors and foundations.
YouthBuild’s program is split into two interrelated blocks: Academic learning and vocational training. The school uses a competency-learning model, rather than grades; students pass when they have proven in a variety of ways that they have mastered the material. All students take classes in language arts, math, science and social studies, with additional supports tailored to students’ needs. (Nearly a quarter of students will go to college after graduation.) Every student at YouthBuild also spends half their time off site at jobs or internships in the area of specialty they have chosen. In the construction program, for example, students learn to gut and then rebuild an abandoned house in the city; a couple years ago, they completed the city’s first LEED-certified building of its type. Back at school, their math classes take on new meaning—they need math skills to do construction and to pass the various tests needed to join a city union. They also spend time studying to earn certain construction certifications that might help them get jobs—including a rigorous OSHA 30 certificate that several students earn every year. (Though, this being Philly, union construction jobs are still not easy to come by.)
Every student leaves YouthBuild with a credential in their field—certified nurse aid or EMT, an early child care certification—that they need to get entry-level jobs when they graduate. (Around 30 percent leave school with a second credential, as well.) Most students who are college-bound enroll in YouthBuild’s retail training program, developed with partners like Starbucks, Saxbys and The Gap, to learn the skills they need for customer service jobs they can work while they’re in school. Starbucks helped develop a customer service credential that is worth four hospitality credits in some colleges. And, it helped build a mini-cafe inside YouthBuild to train barristas. Now, every morning, students make and sell $1 lattes for students, staff and guests—not because YouthBuild wants to create an army of barristas, but because it teaches the skills needed to interact with other employees and with the public.
Felicia Hurt, a YouthBuild student who plans to attend Community College in the fall, was kicked out of two high schools and left another before she finished. She heard about YouthBuild from her sister and a cousin who went last year, and left with jobs and skills. Now 20, with two young children, Hurt says she signed up for YouthBuild to get her diploma, so she could get a job. But she quickly realized that she was getting much more than that—teachers invested in her future, job opportunities, internships, service work that introduced her to working people she never would have encountered—the building blocks to a life she’s always wanted. “If you know someone who wants a life, send them here,” she says. “They’ll get a life for sure.”
For years, YouthBuild’s graduation rate hovered at around 70 percent, higher than even the city’s current (rising) rate of 65 percent; and around 35 percent of students who started YouthBuild were leaving with placement in either jobs or school. These numbers, for this cohort of students, were quite good. But Sidhu says they were unsatisfying, especially when she started looking around at the trajectory of high school graduates from Philadelphia. Generally, around 58 percent of Philly graduates go on to college; two-thirds of them finish in six years—which means only 20 percent of Philly high school grads get college degrees, as well. Meanwhile, there doesn’t seem to be any tracking of the other 42 percent of high school graduates who did not opt for college—or of the 35 percent of students who don’t make it to graduation at all.
The 220 students enrolled at YouthBuild are 18 to 21 year old high school dropouts who are not welcomed back into regular public schools, but are not quite of age for adult education programs. Some will graduate and head to college; others will leave for entry-level jobs in construction, childcare, retail, or health. Each is also an AmeriCorps member, doing service in the community.
“When you look at what happens with District students who graduate, it’s not lovely,” says Sidhu. “And our students were in remedial ed classes, or not getting better jobs, or not keeping the entry level jobs. That was frustrating.”
So, YouthBuild did what has made it so successful throughout its history: It adapted. Several years ago, YouthBuild staff started showing up at Community College of Philadelphia to check in on its graduates who were attending classes there. Eventually, Sidhu says, CCP staff took notice, and gave them some advice: YouthBuild students needed to be better prepared for college-level classes. So YouthBuild modified its schedule to go from August to August, and added in a requirement of six weeks of dual enrollment for all of its students heading to college. It has taken similar advice from its retail partners on what sorts of skills employees need in order to move out of entry-level jobs into manager positions. (The ability to write coherent emails to fellow coworkers, for example.) Now students heading into the workforce are required to do a six-week paid internship before graduation.
Since making the changes, YouthBuild’s graduation rate has risen modestly, to 72 percent. But more importantly for this population of students, 69 percent of those who start at YouthBuild leave for jobs or college a year later, including 89 percent of graduates. That’s double the number of 10 years ago. But still, Sidhu says, that wasn’t enough.
“This is a population that is hugely disconnected from the workforce, and from education, so just getting them into the entry level job is a huge thing,” says Sidhu. “But we realized that when it’s one of our own kids, we think about it as a useful first job. The difference is, with our students, we know it can be a dead end job because that advancement mindset isn’t there. That’s what we help them to achieve.”
Over the course of the last eight years, YouthBuild has slowly started adding in a second year of programming, to work with students for a year after graduation. Now, the school has nine staff members who run Year Two, helping with post-graduation placement in jobs or schools, and then helping those students to keep those placements and do what they need to do to move ahead. They even created an incentive to ensure every second year student shows up at YouthBuild at least once a month: A monthly SEPTA transpass. (“We listened to the students,” Sidhu says. “We designed an incentive, but they said they’re tempted to spend the cash on something else. With a transpass, they can get to class.”) The second year is not funded at all by the School District since it is post-graduation; its $2 million budget comes mostly from private donors.
With Year Two, YouthBuild now works with nearly 400 students every year. That is about the limit of the school’s capacity, Sidhu says. To work, the school necessarily needs an intensive approach to every student—and it needs students who want to do the work to be there. Every year, around 700 youth submit the one page application; by the time enrollment starts in August, that number has naturally dwindled to around 200. This year, the class has 220 students, around 60 percent women; as usual, the class is 90 percent African American, and around 10 percent Latino. (This year for the first time, YouthBuild has two Spanish-speaking ESL students, and hired an ESL teacher.)
Starbucks helped build a mini-cafe inside YouthBuild to train barristas. Now, every morning, students make and sell $1 lattes for students, staff and guests—not because YouthBuild wants to create an army of barristas, but because it teaches the skills needed to interact with other employees and with the public.
“Everyone who comes wipes the slate clean,” Sidhu says. “We don’t look at the number of suspensions, or expulsions, or grades. What we want is a desire to be here.”
These are students whose choices and circumstances have led them to YouthBuild—but that doesn’t mean they’ve left all their circumstances behind. Sidhu says about half the students every year are parents, and that a handful have children while in the program. YouthBuild staff help them figure out how to navigate the social welfare system so they can find a daycare, and sign up for subsidies. (YouthBuild doesn’t provide childcare on site because they want students to have their lives set up independently before they graduate.) Many are addicted to drugs or alcohol when they start; those students are not allowed on worksites until they have cleaned up, with YouthBuild’s help. About 25 percent have some interaction with the justice system while enrolled at YouthBuild; Sidhu or other staff members often show up to testify on their behalf. Another 25 percent become homeless during the year; YouthBuild staff will help them find a place to stay and—more importantly—navigate the system so they can sign up for subsidized housing.
“We are asking students to take on so much sometimes in a single year,” says Sidhu. “Change how you feel about math, and your living situation, and be responsible. And it’s, ‘So sorry you haven’t had all these resources all your life, but guess what? Because of that the stakes are higher. If you fail, you really are failing.’”
Sidhu, who grew up in Mumbai and moved to Philadelphia for graduate school, joined YouthBuild in 1996, as a grant writer. She became executive director six years later, after the founder left. She is strikingly joyful and full of hope, buoyantly rattling off both triumphs and frustrations in a rapid fire, sweetly-accented stream of enthusiasm. Her vision has largely shaped what YouthBuild is today, and it seems in some ways an extension of her joy and hope, of that same desire to be there that brings students in the door. YouthBuild gives opportunity unlike almost anything in the city; it aims students for excellence, whatever that means for each individual. But it is also offers something less success-driven, but no less vital to that success—love.
In a Friday community meeting one day this spring, a third of the students gathered in a semicircle around Ameen Akbar, YouthBuild’s Director of Student Life, for a weekly recap of upcoming events and shout-outs. One teacher reminded students to sign up for Prom Salon, if they wanted their hair done, for free, before prom. Another gave a shout-out to her students for their extra hard work this week; a student returned the high-five to “teachers who didn’t give up on me.” Throughout, Mr. Ameen peppered the meeting with reminders of YouthBuild philosophy, a movement built on caring as much as hard work. “You can touch and feel care everyday here, can touch and feel change everyday,” he reminds the students. “We’re not afraid to say I love you and we care because in the outside world, it’s the opposite.”
Photo Header: Courtesy of YouthBuild Philly