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Offering a way back to hopes of college

A program targets some promising young people whose lives hit a bump on the path to higher education.

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 21, 2004

Boston's downtown pedestrian mall teems with young adults, many on their way to or from a minimum-wage job. But sandwiched between the RadioShack and the Burger King there's a fifth-floor suite where better jobs finally seem within reach for a couple dozen 18- to 24-year-olds.

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They may not have dared to imagine that before they found Year Up, which offers college-level technology classes, professional and personal development, and paid apprenticeships. Participants must be high school graduates or have GEDs - and some even have a few college courses under their belts - but what largely defines them is a desire for higher education that has been thwarted by circumstances.

Some, like Ousdhane Chadic, are immigrants who need to earn money or boost their communication skills before plunging into college full time. Others, like Carlos Torres, long for college and higher salaries, but already have children to support. Still others have had to overcome homelessness or addiction.

What Year Up offers all these young people is a bridge to cross that "opportunity divide," says executive director Gerald Chertavian, an entrepreneur who used profits from the sale of an Internet firm to launch the nonprofit four years ago. Mr. Chertavian had nurtured the concept since the 1980s, when he was a Big Brother in a New York public housing complex. The people he met there "were wonderfully gifted, intelligent, and savvy - they just didn't have a path into the mainstream," he says. "It was unacceptable.

America has nobody to waste."

Immigrants and racial minorities are the fastest growing groups in the United States, and "they're getting the least amount of education at a time when our knowledge-based economy is increasingly demanding higher-level skills," he says. "So you have a divide between people who can get into the game and those who can't."

Employers, educators, and government officials are all looking for solutions to that disconnect. "We're struggling as a society to reinvent vocational education," says Howard Husock, director of the Initiative for Social Entrepreneurship at the Manhattan Institute. "It used to be there were trades, there were factories, people had a sense of how to do this. And now we've got such a changing workforce all the time."

Year Up, which recently received Fast Company's Social Capitalist Award for its innovation and social impact, is "reinventing that loop" between education and jobs, Mr. Husock says, but this time the jobs are in giant financial and healthcare firms, where the demand is as much for people skills as for technical ones.

Gaining polish

Year Up gives students a stipend while they take technical classes and gain some professional polish.

Then it sends them into a six-month paid apprenticeship, where they test their skills but still can call on the support of Year Up staff and mentors. Every day there's an emphasis on what Chertavian calls the ABC component - Attitude, Behavior, Communication. And that impresses employers. One apprentice recently helped a senior hospital executive with a computer problem. The executive didn't know the young man wasn't part of the regular staff when he sent a complimentary e-mail to Mary Finlay, deputy chief information officer for Partners HealthCare System.

"He said, 'You've got a wonderful staff and he was so helpful and didn't make me feel like an idiot,' " Ms. Finlay says. That's hard to teach entry-level employees, and "that's why we go back to [Year Up]," she says.

Year Up represents a broader shift toward "looking at a career ladder, helping someone get into a position that has a future, so that they have family-sustaining wages," says Pat Lees, a workforce-learning consultant at the Chicago-based Council for Adult & Experiential Learning (CAEL). Her group has found great success at test sites for Lifelong Learning Accounts, where employers match employee contributions to a fund that can be used for continuing education.

The jobs Year Up alumni land pay an average of $14 an hour, and Chertavian says he'll tweak the curriculum as the market for technology jobs changes. But he's equally devoted to nurturing students' love of learning. Through a partnership with Cambridge College, which caters to people who juggle school, work, and family, Year Up students earn up to 18 credits. "Now, forevermore on their résumé they can say, 'College Degree expected,' " Chertavian says. "With just that alone, on average they're expected to earn 25 percent more than their counterparts who don't have some college experience."