School Choice & Charters

For Some Wayward Youths, Job Corps Offers Redirection

By John Gehring — May 17, 2000 7 min read

Chris Miele sits and waits at the Woodstock Job Corps center on a recent rainy morning like a traveler unsure of where his journey will take him. A high school dropout, Mr. Miele has decided to enroll in a program that each year serves more than 60,000 youths looking for a road map to a better life.

“I just want to get the most out of this,” Mr. Miele, a lanky 16-year-old with close-cropped blond hair, says a few minutes after arriving at the center. “I will be here as long as I need to be. This is like I am starting over.”

A national study released earlier this year by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. suggests that he has come to the right place.

Since 1964, the Job Corps has been the centerpiece of the federal government’s efforts to help disadvantaged youths ages 16 to 24 improve their academic skills and find employment. The intensive program, which costs $1.3 billion to run in the current fiscal year, includes academic education, vocational training, residential living, counseling, and job-placement assistance.

According to the study by Princeton, N.J.-based Mathematica, the Job Corps was particularly beneficial for 16- and 17-year-olds. Those who went through the program were 80 percent more likely to have earned a high school diploma or General Educational Development certificate by the end of a 30-month follow-up period than a control group of students who were excluded from the program. The participants in that age group also earned salaries that were 20 percent higher than those of nonparticipants, and their arrest rates were 14 percent lower.

Participants of all ages received about 1,000 more hours of education and job training than members of the control group.

“This is a program that seems to be working,” said Alan B. Krueger, a professor of economics at Princeton University, who described the study as the most scientifically rigorous evaluation of the Job Corps ever done.

The results are consistent, Mr. Krueger said, with a growing consensus that residential centers are effective environments for dropouts.

Structured Environment

At the Woodstock facility, a bucolic 64-acre campus in central Maryland that once served as a Jesuit seminary, students live and work in the type of structured environment designed to help redirect young lives that have derailed in a myriad of ways.

Currently, about 250 male students and 150 female students are enrolled at Woodstock, a statistic that frequently changes as new students enter and leave every two weeks.

Some of the participants here have been kicked out of high school; others have spent time in jail; a few already have their high school diplomas but need to burnish their social, academic, and workplace skills. While their personal stories differ, all of the corps members have come here voluntarily. All want to find a foothold in a job market that more than ever demands high-level skills.

Eighteen-year-old Vernon Wanamaker of Wilmington, Del., who has been at the center eight months, said he knew he had reached a crossroads in his life after getting kicked out of school for drug possession.

“I thought making fast money was the way,” he said. “I decided to get off the street and make a change in my life before it was too late. I finally realized I wanted to make it in life and be someone.”

Angier Malwal, 20, a native of Sudan who left her war-torn country to come to the United States, is now learning culinary-arts skills here. “When I first came here, I couldn’t even read or speak English,” said Ms. Malwal, who hopes to attend community college in July. “The people here have helped a lot.”

Daniel Burdette, the director of the Woodstock center, said the key to the program’s success is simple. “We take young men and women out of an environment in which they are not succeeding and place them in a structured environment where we hold them very accountable,” said Mr. Burdette, who has been involved with the Job Corps in five states over the past 20 years. “What these kids really want is a change.”

Blending a military background with a degree in counseling, Mr. Burdette is part drill instructor, part empathetic ear to the students on his campus.

On a recent morning, he approached a group of students lingering too long outside before heading to class. One student spotted a wireless microphone Mr. Burdette was still holding from a morning meeting and wanted to sing. The director handed it over, and the student began dancing, breaking into a profanity-laced rap.

“Hey, hey, you can’t rap without cursing?” Mr. Burdette asked, taking the student to task but careful not to embarrass him in front of his friends. The director then launched into his own rap—without obscenities—that had the students in hysterics as they moved on to class.

“You have to hold people accountable, but you have to love them, too,” Mr. Burdette said about the balancing act his position demands.

Job Corps candidates must be at least 16 years old and not yet 25 at the time of enrollment; a high school dropout or in need of further vocational training; and live in an area where job prospects are minimal. Minors must have signed consent from a parent or guardian.

The program is self-paced. Job Corps participants stay at the centers for varying amounts of time, though the average length nationally is eight months, according to the Mathematica study. To graduate, they must earn the GED and demonstrate proficiency in the skills of their chosen trades.

When students arrive on campus, they take a placement test to determine their academic levels; at Woodstock, the average student enters the program with 6th grade academic skills. Performance on the test determines whether participants are placed in basic education classes or in classes that prepare them to eventually pass the GED test.

All Job Corps students must also learn a trade. An occupational-exploration program allows new participants to experience several different types of vocational training before focusing on one. Here at Woodstock, students choose from one of 14 trades that include engineering, welding, retail sales, data entry, and culinary arts. They alternate between a week of academics and a week of trade instruction.

Dana Kelly, the vocational manager at Woodstock, says one of the more significant challenges he and other staff members face is getting the participants to understand that many of their habits will not be tolerated in the workplace.

“Employers tell us all the time that ‘the students can have all the skills in the world, but if they don’t have a strong work ethic they are no good to me,’ ” Mr. Kelly said.

The Job Corps received some criticism over its vocational-training programs in a 1998 General Accounting Office audit requested by Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. The audit found that the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees the corps and hires the private companies that run the 110 individual centers had significantly overstated the percentage of participants who completed such programs. The department reported the figure at 48 percent, while the GAO set it at 14 percent.(“Job Corps’ Successes Were Overstated, GAO Audit Finds,” Nov. 25, 1998.)

Job Corps officials responded by implementing a new coding system to better monitor and report statistics.

Lights Out at 11

The rolling hills and rural tranquility that greet students when they first arrive at Woodstock is for many a new world that brings its own brand of culture shock. For students accustomed to the flavors and rhythms of city life, Woodstock is not exactly their old neighborhood. That is the point, of course, but the adjustment can be jarring.

Students have a 10 p.m. curfew, and lights are out in the dormitories by 11. All students must wear uniforms.

For 19-year-old Larry Matthews, the leap from the corners of Baltimore to the Job Corps center was not an easy one. A high school dropout who has spent time in jail, Mr. Matthews mouthed off to staff members the first few weeks and was on the verge of being kicked out. Now in his third month, he has settled into academic work, is preparing to take the GED test, and talks enthusiastically about his electrical-wiring trade.

“It’s difficult, but it’s worth it,” he said of the Job Corps program. “I came here to get out of the street and get a new mind-frame for myself.”

Wanda Nance has walked in the same shoes her students do today. A graduate of a Job Corps program in Utah during the 1970s, Ms. Nance is the school-to-work coordinator at Woodstock.

“Job Corps taught me you are in charge of your own destiny,” she said, adding that this is a lesson she tries to impart to her students every day.

Craig Stokes, an intense man who speaks passionately about his students, leads the welding classes here. He knows the roadblocks many of his students face and struggle to overcome. “I’m the parent, vocational instructor, and the counselor all wrapped up in one,” he said during a break in class. “You never know what your job will entail.”

Mr. Stokes, 42, has missed only two days of classes in the six years he has taught at the center. When students see him making it to work even during a snowstorm, he said, they see commitment and professionalism put into practice.

“I take this seriously. When you set that example they will follow,” he said. “I have my own business. I let them know that if I can do it, they can, too. They can leave here with their head up.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2000 edition of Education Week as For Some Wayward Youths, Job Corps Offers Redirection


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