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Study Hails Vocational Program for Refugee Youths

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An unusual six-year study that tracked more than 100 poor Central American immigrant teenagers into adulthood suggests that the job-training and other programs offered at a multicultural vocational high school played a key role in helping many escape poverty.

The study, conducted by Timothy Ready, an anthropologist at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., found that two-thirds of the students who had received vocational instruction or participated in school-sponsored internships through the District of Columbia's Multicultural Career Intern Program were working in related fields six years later.

Moreover, although none of the students in the study had graduated from college, nearly one-half had either finished a postsecondary job-training program, earned an associate degree, or completed at least one year of college. The study found that four out of five had participated in some type of educational program.

The program, since renamed Bell Multicultural High School, was established shortly before the study began to serve the city's rapidly growing population of at-risk youths from Latin America and other areas. It sought to introduce the students to different vocations and to provide them with job training.

The study began with 146 Central American students, more than half of them from El Salvador, who were enrolled in the school in 1982-1983.

Almost all came from households living below the poverty level, more than two-thirds spent their teenage years in a household without their father, and more than half did not live with a parent who had completed high school.

Many lived alone or with friends, and nearly all worked while in school, typically as restaurant employees or as night janitors in downtown office buildings.

Six years later, Mr. Ready interviewed 112 study participants who were still living in the metropolitan Washington area. He found that most had overcome their difficulties and adjusted well.

Many credited the school and a support network of family and friends, as well as their ethnic community, for helping them overcome such obstacles as negative peer pressure and problems with drugs or alcohol.

Ninety-seven percent of the study participants worked, nearly all in full-time jobs. The largest number worked in restaurants.

The group was not without disappointments, however. Nineteen percent were dissatisfied with their current jobs, usually because they did not fulfill the career aspirations the young people had had as teens.

Athough more than three-quarters of the students said in 1982-83 that they would like to work in one of the professions, by 1988 only 61 percent had graduated from high, and few had made significant progress toward obtaining a bachelor's degree. Most who had quit school cited such problems as a pressing need to work or difficulties associated with their status as immigrants.

Many of the men who dropped out were able to find high-paying jobs in restaurants or in construction.

Women, on the other hand, "absolutely needed" education and job skills to find jobs with adequate wages, the study found.

Motherhood, rather than marital status, appeared to be the primary determinant of a woman's educational status. Only 43 percent of mothers, compared with 80 percent of childless women, had finished high school or earned a General Educational Development certificate.

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