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'At Risk' Youth Seen Posing Costly Threat to Nation

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Washington--The nation risks grave economic, political, and social turmoil if it fails to act quickly to help teen-agers who are "disconnected" from their schools, their families, and the workplace, assert the authors of a report released here last week by the Education Commission of the States.

The report, called "Reconnecting Youth: The Next Stage of Reform," calls for "a profound restructuring of the schools" along lines recommended in recent reports by Ernest L. Boyer, John I. Goodlad, and Theodore R. Sizer.

The document also challenges business leaders "to see that any youth who wants to work has the opportunity to do so" and to help ensure that young people's first work experiences are positive ones.

Above all, the report says, leaders in education, business, and government must be willing to take risks to help "disconnected" youths find useful places in society.

"The problem, simply stated, is this: a growing proportion of our young people are not making successful transitions to productive adult lives," the report states. "They are paying a heavy price. We, as a society, are paying a heavy price. In the years ahead, the costs are going to get higher."

Series of Reports

The report, a project of the ecs business advisory commission, is the latest in a series of studies that have focused on the problems of academically and socially disadvantaged students who are not benefiting from the current drive to reform the nation's schools. Earlier reports addressing similar issues and reaching similar conclusions include "Investing in Our Children," by the Council for Economic Development, and "Barriers to Excellence: Our Children at Risk," by the National Coalition of Advocates for Students.

The ecs group, which is chaired by Gov. Charles S. Robb of Virginia and includes a variety of prominent leaders from business, labor, and education, released the preliminary findings of its report during the commission's annual meeting in Philadelphia last July. (See Education Week, Aug. 21, 1985.)

Turning Youths Around

"We simply cannot afford to write off at least one and a quarter million teens," said Governor Robb, a past chairman of the ecs, in a prepared statement. "We can't afford it economically, socially, or politically. And we don't have to. There are programs that work for these young people. Schools, government, and business, working together, can turn a lot of them around."

"Currently, there are no incentives for helping [these] kids," added Frank Newman, president of the ecs "In fact, the incentives are to get them out of school, not keep them in. We've got to turn that around."

According to the report, approximately 2.4 million young people between the ages of 16 and 19--or roughly 10 percent to 15 percent of all people in this age group--have become disconnected from society at large. These youths, it says, face a variety of problems, such as unwanted pregnancy, severe depression, unemployment, and illiteracy.

The percentage of disconnected youths is continuing to increase at the same time that the number of young adults in the labor pool is decreasing, the report notes. These trends pose a particularly severe threat to American business, it says.

"This is not a problem for the timid," according to the ecs panel. "This is not an issue for those who fear for their popularity or want to cover all their bets. Cut the red tape. Restructure inefficient bureaucracies. Create a competitive climate for ideas. Reward imagination. Reward people who take chances."

The panel offered the following recommendations for schools and businesses:

Elementary and secondary edu-cators should heed calls for a "profound restructuring of the schools and a thorough rethinking of our educational priorities."

More resources should be devoted to early-childhood education programs and after-school day care. Such programs should pay particular attention to children of low socioeconomic status.

As "a baseline standard for effective school reform," schools should require that all students in the 6th grade be able to read, write, and compute at the 6th-grade level. Those who cannot "should not be relegated to programs that only repeat the pedagogy that failed the first time."

Teen-agers who have dropped out of school should be permitted to "drop back in," preferably into alternative schools or work-study programs.

Businesses should join cooperative programs "that connect students to role models in the world of work." The panel noted that "mentor" programs have proven over time to be particularly effective in this regard.

Businesses should also see to it "that any youth who wants to work has the opportunity to do so," and should offer schools their expertise in "decentralizing, debureaucratizing, and reorganizing large systems."

Copies of the report can be obtained for $10 each by writing to the ecs Distribution Center, 1860 Lincoln Street #300, Denver, Colo., 80295. Ask for "Reconnecting Youth," AR85-1.

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