More than 25,000 young adults in King County are neither employed nor in school. Most do not have a high school diploma. But there are some bright spots on the horizon.
High school graduation rates in Washington, at five percentage points below the national average, are nothing to cheer. But our state is a ground-breaker in reconnecting dropouts with ways to earn a diploma after the fact.
The sunny euphemism for young people age 16 to 24 who are neither in school nor employed is “opportunity youth,” and federal data suggest there are about 26,000 of them in King County, the vast majority without enough education to nab a minimum-wage job.
In south King County, more than 30 percent are parents, 41 percent struggle with mental health problems, and another 41 percent have a recent arrest or conviction, according to a recent report from the Community Center for Education Results. Almost 70 percent never graduated from high school.
The data, culled from social service rolls, cover only those who received some form of state aid between 2000 and 2012. But the patterns are seen as broadly representative, and have generated tremendous urgency among educators working to improve school outcomes in districts from Seattle to Auburn.
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The bright spot is that Washington now has about 2,000 such youth enrolled in programs like iGrad in Kent, which takes a case-management approach to helping each student complete high school. In the past two years, the number of similar sites has tripled, and United Way of King County recently committed $20 million toward connecting 7,500 disengaged youth with education by 2020.
Encouraging, says Nicole Yohalem, who heads the Road Map initiative to reach them, and urgently needed. “The reality is that we have thousands and thousands of young people out there who can benefit,” she said.
Last week Yohalem and her team launched the Reconnect to Opportunity website to find more prospective students, including those over age 21, who may think they are too old to earn a diploma.
No worries on that score. The state’s High School 21+ program, housed at most community colleges, converts relevant life experience into school credits, and guides students toward classes that fill in any holes. The cost is $25 per quarter.
Even those gifted with extraordinary skills can struggle to find their way. Mario Bailey, who played four years in the NFL soon after graduating from Franklin High School, did not have a resume until his late 30s.
He returned to college, became a social worker and now works for King County, helping Yohalem search for young people who may face similar difficulties – with far less support.
“I get it,” Bailey said. “I’ve seen a lot of people that should-have-been and could-have-been, if they’d had someone to point them in the right direction.”