School & District Management Commentary

Why Not an ‘Opportunity Corps’?

By Hugh B. Price — November 29, 2000 9 min read
Lessons from the military could give some young people a second chance.

When I was a teenager in the 1950s, many of my classmates simply weren’t into school. Try as the teachers might, they just couldn’t turn these youngsters on to learning. Some were cutups and truants. A few of the boys were what we quaintly called “roughnecks” who barely escaped reform school. Others probably possessed an array of those nonacademic “intelligences” that Howard Gardner of Harvard University writes about these days and that made school an unbearable bore.

As soon as they could, these kids dropped out of school and out of sight. I recall encountering many of them years later. Somehow they had managed to enlist in the Army—or else they’d been drafted. Either way, they strutted about proudly in their uniforms. The Army had turned them around by successfully instilling a basic lesson of military life: If you do a job well, you get ahead.

Years ago, the U.S. Army worked wonders with aimless young men. What’s the explanation? Beyond the legendary discipline imposed by the Pentagon, my strong hunch is that the intricate system of ranks and incentives helped motivate young people who could not see far over the horizon.

Unfortunately, around 1970 or so, the military went upscale and stopped accepting school dropouts. This shut off an important escape route and road to salvation for desperate inner-city and rural youths with nowhere else to turn. This has cost society—and successive generations of these young people— dearly.

For years, I tried to figure out how to get the military back in the business of helping to develop youngsters who weren’t being reached by the schools. Barely weeks after becoming vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1988, I attended an Accelerated Schools conference at Stanford University’s school of education. There I heard Edmond Gordon of Yale University say that he feared the condition of urban youngsters was so grim that it might be time to “conscript them for their own good.”

That provocative observation sparked an idea that had long been germinating in my mind. Could we, I wondered, get one of the branches of the military to operate a domestic youth corps for school dropouts? It would operate on military bases, with all of the structure and training of the military, except that kids would perform community service instead of learning to wage war.

In the spring of 1989, I broached this idea with the National Guard. That conversation spawned what came to be known the National Guard Youth Challenge Corps.

When the military stopped accepting high school graduates, it shut off an important road to salvation for inner-city and rural youths with nowhere else to turn.

The quasi-military corps currently serves upwards of 5,000 16- to 18-year- olds in 25 states, with 13 additional states, the nation’s capital, and the U.S. Virgin Islands eager to start their own units. The unemployed enrollees either dropped out or were expelled from school. They spend five months on a military base, immersed in the very kind of rigorous, highly structured regimen that you’d expect of a military operation. Following the residential phase, the enlistees receive a year of mentoring and placement assistance.

The curriculum, which draws on years of Pentagon research and experience, aims to improve their life skills and employment potential. Participants receive academic instruction and leadership training. Interestingly enough, they’re also taught “followership,” namely, how to be a team player and take orders from supervisors without taking offense.

The Challenge Corps is one of the most effective turnaround programs for teenagers that I know of. The retention rate of roughly 90 percent exceeds the national high school completion rate. Over 21,000 youngsters have graduated since its inception in 1991, with the vast majority of them landing solidly on their feet. Seventy-three percent earned General Educational Development diplomas. That’s 12 percent higher than the national rate. Nearly three-quarters of them have secured jobs, enrolled in college, entered vocational schools or adult education programs, joined the military, or returned to finish high school after all.

These positive impacts are especially striking because, remember, these young people were unemployed and out of school when they enrolled. The program costs only $14,000 per participant. Corporate executives pine for a comparable return on investment.

The success of the Challenge Corps set me to thinking this summer about whether the concept could help others down on their luck who yearn for a second shot at the economic mainstream. I have in mind the young moms who cannot get off welfare because they lack the self-confidence and savvy to hold a steady job. The millions more school dropouts who have so many rough edges and so few skills that employers won’t take a chance on them.

Just giving them a dose of job training won’t do the trick. Forcing them to leave welfare won’t render them self-reliant. They need a more profoundly transformational experience that enables them to reinvent themselves. The type of transformation the military has produced in young people for years. The kind of jump-start offered by the Challenge Corps.

Young adults who need to get their lives back on track represent a vast reservoir of underdeveloped and underutilized talent for our economy.

I know it’s fashionable in today’s political climate to feel little or no compassion for these folk, to dismiss them as n’er-do-wells who deserve their fates. That’s hard-hearted. But to be blunt, it’s also just plain dumb, given all those help-wanted signs posted recently by employers. These young people represent a vast reservoir of underdeveloped and underutilized talent for our economy, if only society will invest in tapping it. The Challenge Corps is one such investment that works beyond question.

Accordingly, I propose that the federal and state governments join forces to create an Opportunity Corps for older teenagers and young adults who need to get their lives on track. I see it as being run by military alumni who have human development down to a science. The Opportunity Corps would operate on military bases for participants who can get away. Enrollees with children would put in long days while their youngsters stayed in quality day-care programs provided by the corps. The curriculum would mirror the Challenge Corps. As in the military, there would be ranks, so that those enlisted learned to climb the ladder of opportunity, one rung at a time.

I envision the Opportunity Corps serving a quarter of a million participants annually. At roughly $15,000 per enrollee, the yearly tab would come to under $4 billion. That’s easily affordable in the short term, if the bill is split between Washington and the states.

Where would the money come from? One place to look is Washington, where Congress and the White House are wrangling over how to divvy up a record budget surplus. The states, with surpluses of their own, are awash in unspent welfare money. And governments everywhere are squandering billions of dollars by incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders who pose no threat to anyone, yet sometimes draw stiffer sentences than rapists and armed robbers. They belong in the labor market instead of behind bars.

The Opportunity Corps could become the 21st century magic carpet for young people who never thought they’d get another shot at the American Dream.

In New York state, Chief Judge Judith Kaye declared this summer that state courts should send small-time drug offenders to treatment programs instead of sticking them behind bars. Her enlightened policy would detour upwards of 10,000 nonviolent offenders from prison annually and save taxpayers about half a billion dollars each year. That alone would be enough to finance 36,000 slots in the proposed Opportunity Corps.

Not long ago, I heard a guest on the PBS “Newshour with Jim Lehrer” say that for World War II veterans from poor and working-class families, the GI Bill was their magic carpet to the American mainstream. The Opportunity Corps I’m proposing would become the 21st-century magic carpet for hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens who thought they’d never get another shot at the American Dream.

The Challenge Corps, our program with the National Guard, holds lessons for public education as well. It inspired Henry Thomas, my colleague who runs the Urban League in Springfield, Mass., to invite the Massachusetts National Guard to partner with the league in creating a charter school. The New Leadership Charter School opened for business in September 1998. Starting with a 6th grade class, it will add one grade per year until it stretches from 6th grade through 12th grade. Enrollment will peak at 520 pupils.

When the students at the New Leadership Charter School enrolled, fully 70 percent of them scored below grade level in reading and math, and many were two grades or more behind. The innovative school focuses on academic fundamentals, yet embraces many Challenge Corps methods, including an emphasis on leadership development. It operates 51/2 days a week and 230 days out of the year, as opposed to the 180-day calendar for conventional schools. This extended school year underscores the seriousness of the enterprise and ensures more time on task.

Summer offers special opportunities for outdoor learning, character building, and leadership development, under the tutelage of National Guard mentors. The youngsters spend three days and nights at Camp Curtis Guild, an Army base, where reveille rings at 6 a.m. and lights are out at 10 p.m.

Just as we’ve converted some military technology to domestic use, it’s time to demilitarize what the Pentagon knows about developing people.

The students’ testimonials convey the benefits of the experience. As 12-year- old Eduardo Figueroa said: “This school has made me more disciplined and prepared, in all ways. Kids do better here. We’re motivated because we see what can get us far in life. We help each other out.” Added Brittany Allen, also age 12: “It’s really changed me, this place. Before, I wasn’t that focused. Here, you know what you need to do, and you just do it.”

This past summer, some 50 8th and 9th graders from the school spent two weeks at a “Careers in Aviation” program. They didn’t merely explore careers. They actually piloted airplanes— under supervision, of course—and earned credit toward their pilot’s licenses. Their stay on the campus of Westfield State College helped demystify college life and build confidence that they’ll be able to handle the experience when their time comes. Thus, Springfield youngsters who probably doubted they could fly have discovered they can touch the sky.

The stimulating educational experience has translated already into encouraging academic results. One-third of the pupils began the past school year on or above grade level in math. Forty- four percent ended the year on grade or better. In reading, 36 percent started out on grade or better. Forty-nine percent finished on or above grade level. In a heartening show of confidence, the local school board voted in August to construct a new facility for the charter school.

The “peace dividend” attributable to the cessation of the Cold War is accruing steadily to society’s benefit. Just as we’ve converted some military technology to domestic use, it’s time to demilitarize what the Pentagon knows about developing people.

Hugh B. Price is the president of the National Urban League in New York City.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2000 edition of Education Week as Why Not an ‘Opportunity Corps’?


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