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Employment Strategies for Dropout Prevention

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For many of us, the process of preparing for and finding a job is almost automatic. We grow up assuming that we will work someday. And we are told about the steps required to get there: summer jobs, internships, college.

Our daily dealings with parents, friends, and relatives do much to reinforce these assumptions: Conversations may concern the day's accomplishments at work, complaints about a boss, the amount of a paycheck, or the need to find a better job. Even the sound of an alarm clock, or a morning radio show, announces that something important--the work day--has begun.

Yet many of the students at risk for dropping out of school--such as those participating in New York City's Dropout Prevention Program--have not had these kinds of experiences. Growing up in an environment largely composed of nonworkers, they conceive of work in an abstract way. Such students may say that they want to be doctors, lawyers, or sports stars, but they have no idea about how to fulfill those dreams.

This should not surprise us; how could it be otherwise? Surrounded by the devastating effects of poverty and unemployment, these youngsters have few role models to follow in the pursuit of a career or a vocation. Moreover, they feel frustrated, angry, and hopeless as they watch their friends and relatives struggle to free themselves from the vicious cycles of poverty.

Statistics reveal only a small part of the story:

About two-thirds of the students in New York City's 10 dpp high schools come from single-parent homes, in many of which the struggle to find work and to survive economically is constant.

Anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of the students in some dpp high schools live in households where the annual income falls below the poverty line.

In 1987, the average unemployment rate for blacks of all ages in New York City was 9.2 percent--nearly twice the 4.7 percent rate for whites. The unemployment rate for Hispanics during the same period was 8.8 percent.

One consequence of the reality that these figures suggest is that inner-city teen-agers lack a stable frame of reference for the pursuit of employment. Anticipating a bleak future, they feel that finding a rewarding job is virtually impossible. For the Dropout Prevention Program, this situation presents an enormous challenge: How should this milieu be addressed--and undone--to prepare students for the challenges of an increasingly sophisticated, technologically-based economy?

Two-and-a-half years ago, Mayor Edward Koch established our program--giving us $10 million for 10 high schools--to confront these kinds of issues. Of the various dropout-prevention strategies with which the program has experimented, one of the most important has been the effort to link earning with learning through the development of comprehensive part-time and full-time employment programs for at-risk students. We have learned several lessons thus far.

As a fundamental principle, employment opportunities must be part of any dropout-prevention effort. Working can nourish self-esteem and can give youngsters a feeling of belonging in spite of the hardships confronted at home and in their neighborhoods. Because it relates education to long-term economic independence, a job also motivates students to attend school and obtain a diploma. Finally, professional experiences can teach students about such values as responsibility to others, punctuality, and discipline.

Employment, then, can be an effective anti-dropout strategy, particularly when it is used as an incentive for disadvantaged youths to stay in school. Through the efforts of school personnel and community-based organizations in the dpp high schools, hundreds of part-time jobs--within the schools, in local businesses, or in the public sector--have been found for teen-agers who are at risk of dropping out.

The opportunity to win a part-time job in return for good attendance and achievement can be enormously stabilizing to youngsters who are living in turmoil. While this approach departs from the practice of many other employment programs, which reward youngsters who are already succeeding in school, we have found that the offer of a job induces many potential dropouts to remain in school.


Before we provide a student with a job, however, it is essential that we prepare the pupil for this new responsibility. Many of the employment programs that we sponsor through our schools and community-based organizations are designed to expose students to the working world. In career workshops, students learn what to expect once they are employed; they become familiar with the functioning of an office; they practice such skills as the proper way to answer a telephone. In addition, vocational-skills training is available to those who wish to learn a trade and earn academic credit while doing so.

Once students are working part time, they are encouraged to view the job as a learning experience. Youngsters are carefully monitored by dpp staff members in the schools. If problems arise, or a mistake is made on the job, we work through the problem with the student step by step. It is crucial that this be done: Disadvantaged teen-agers, who are easily discouraged, often perceive mistakes as irrevocable setbacks. Furthermore, steady support and feedback about their work experiences help counter the poor self-image that plagues so many of these students.

The best example of dpp's comprehensive approach to employment is its Jobs for Seniors Program, started during the 1986-87 school year. For the first time ever in New York City, high schools are formally helping those students who want full-time employment to find jobs after graduation.

Schools have traditionally directed their energies toward seniors who want to go to college. Our program, however, in the belief that every teen-ager should be helped into the world, would like schools to assist all of their students. This phase of our program also addresses the negative example of high-school graduates who cannot find work for younger students who may be questioning the value of staying in school.

Through dpp funds, job-search specialists have been hired in our high schools to assist seniors in finding full-time jobs. Their objective is to make these high schools a rich resource from which business and private industry can select their trainees and entry-level candidates. Acting as a placement service in matching students' abilities and personalities with the needs of prospective employers, the specialists in effect build a bridge between the school and the private sector. These professionals are also responsible for an intensive employment-preparation program that exposes seniors to the variety of jobs available, and teaches them about resume writing and job-interview techniques.

Thus far, roughly 85 percent of our high-school graduates who expressed an interest in full-time work have been placed in jobs. We are hopeful that the numbers will grow in the coming year. But it is a good--and important--beginning.

Perhaps stories of individual students provide the best means of explaining the importance of this program. Take Myrna DeJesus, for example. Like many seniors about to graduate last spring, she knew that she wanted to work after completing school. But Myrna, a senior at Roosevelt High School in the Bronx, was not sure how to go about finding a full-time job. What businesses were hiring? What kind of job was she qualified for? How should she go about contacting different companies, and what were firms looking for when they hired new employees?

Through the efforts of the job-search specialist at Roosevelt, Myrna attended job-preparation workshops, where she learned about resume writing, interview techniques, and job expectations. Today, Myrna is employed full time as a clerk at Morgan Guaranty Trust Company, which participated in a jobs-fair program at Roosevelt.

Excited to be working, Myrna says she is learning something new every day. All her friends, she adds, wish that they had been able to participate in a program like Roosevelt's.

The experience of students such as Myrna testifies to the value of job-preparation and employment opportunities in motivating disadvantaged young people to stay in school. The success that many of these students are beginning to enjoy in New York City offers hope that dropout-prevention programs based on sound principles can help not only to keep at-risk teen-agers in school but also to direct them purposefully toward the future.


Victor Herbert is superintendent of the New York City school system's Dropout Prevention Program.

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