Helping at-risk youth

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THE current school reform movement has demonstrated that educators, governors, business and labor leaders, legislators, and citizens from every walk of life have a common stake in education improvement and can work together effectively to bring it about. As the reforms take hold, a set of continuing and difficult problems has been revealed -- that for perhaps 25 percent to 30 percent of the students, schools and the reforms do not work. Consider the following:

About 28 percent of America's 17- and 18-year-olds do not graduate from high school. In some urban areas, and for some groups -- low income, minority, the handicapped -- the problem is much worse.

Hispanics have the highest dropout rate of any ethnic group: Almost half who enter high school do not finish. In New York the rate is 80 percent; Chicago, 70 percent; Los Angeles, 50 percent.

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Between 1970 and 1983, the US economy created jobs for 22 million new workers. Nineteen percent of these jobs went to youths between 16 and 24. One-tenth of 1 percent went to black male youth.

While nearly 7.1 million new jobs have been created since November 1982, teen-agers, who represent 18 percent of the unemployed, have suffered a net loss of nearly 34,000 jobs.

Thirty-two percent of 16- to 24-year-old blacks and minorities are neither in school nor employed.

The costs of not addressing the needs of so many young people are staggering. Students who drop out and lack employment skills are more often unemployed than others. They have higher crime and delinquency rates. They pay little in taxes, appear more often on welfare rolls, and nationally represent a $20 billion-a-year loss.

At-risk young people also constitute a threat to our political stability. A society in which two-thirds to three-fourths of the population becomes steadily more affluent while the remainder -- including a disproportionate share of minorities -- spirals downward, simply will not work. Addressing this issue, then, is not a matter of social responsibility alone. It is an urgent task central to the country's further economic and social development.

The momentum of educational reform must spread beyond the educational system and become a momentum for opportunity in all sectors of our society. The recent intense involvement of business and labor leaders in reform is therefore most promising. There are now more than 46,000 partnerships between schools and businesses, civic organizations, colleges and universities, foundations, and government agencies. These collaborative arrangements point the way from education reform to a broader, more coherent youth policy.

Central to this policy should be youth service. We have sporadically provided young people opportunities to serve their country through work in conservation, national defense, third-world assistance, support for the elderly, or community rebuilding. The California Conservation Corps and the San Francisco Conservation Corps are successful service models.

Such programs are rich in benefits for the young people in them, as well as for the community, state, or nation they serve. Participants develop responsibility, independence, skills and knowledge, and the pride that comes with accomplishment and civic involvement. Communities receive services they could not otherwise afford and the satisfaction of knowing that the energies and talents of their young people are being well invested. Youth unemployment, apathy, declining civic involvement, passivity, and education can all be attacked at once.

There are other options. Youth enterprise opportunities could be greatly expanded. We need alternative schools for at-risk students unable to learn in traditional settings. Work-study programs have been very successful on a limited scale. Programs such as Cities in Schools bring support resources to students with many problems. There are residential training programs, stay-in-school programs, and transition programs based on the Jobs for Delaware's Graduates model.

There are many approaches to helping at-risk young people that help the community at the same time. We need now to move from hundreds of such successful programs, mostly isolated from each other, to thousands in close contact with one another.

Charles S. Robb, governor of Virginia, is chairman of the Education Commission of the States.

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