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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.

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Year Up started with 22 students four years ago and now serves about 200. Expanding to cities such as Providence, R.I., it expects to help more than 700 students in a few years.

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Numbers are one way Chertavian can claim success: 86 percent of students complete the program and 87 percent of graduates are placed in professional jobs; 9 out of 10 employers say the apprentices' professional and technical skills meet or exceed expectations; 65 percent of alumni have been accepted into colleges.

The other evidence is in the students' firm handshakes and confident voices.

"I'm better at public speaking," says Ms. Chadic, who arrived from Haiti at 16 and then graduated from a Boston public high school. "Some of the things that we've learned here, we wouldn't have learned even if we were at college," she says.

Mr. Torres applied to Year Up when he realized that continuing to work at minimum wage wouldn't cut it. At 23, he's the father of two children. He's been with their mother for six years and was inspired to see her go through Year Up and then simultaneously work and go to college.

"I definitely want to be a part of that success," he says. He hopes eventually to take the police exam, but he already credits Year Up for how he's changed - "coming dressed professionally every day, [and] the way I carry myself" he says, pointing to his tie. "[I'm] going out there and people are acknowledging me as a professional."

Communications skills

During the afternoon class, students sit in front of sleek computers - the tools of their new trade. But at the moment, their attention is on a classmate practicing her end-of-the-semester speech for the communications unit.

Before Tayssi Princivil gets through the first sentence of her speech about a spate of abductions, the teacher reminds her to take her hands out of her pockets. Unflustered, she starts again, looking directly at her audience. A few times she apologetically looks over her notes, but when she's done, the feedback is reassuring.

"You really know your material," one classmate says. "Don't doubt yourself. You've got that strong personality that we all know and love."

Schooled for the past few months in giving constructive criticism, another student suggests she trim her examples so they have more power. Teacher Melanee Grondahl gives specific praise and a few pointers, urging her to practice pronouncing "abductions" clearly.

This group will be matched with employers such as Fidelity and Staples for apprenticeships starting in January. They'll work full time, except for Wednesday afternoons, when students come back to Year Up to get feedback and polish their skills. Kimberly Zouzoua, who advises students and coordinates with employers, recalls one who complained about a tedious task: tagging computer hardware.

"I said, 'You know, you have to crawl before you walk. They want to see if you're diligent ... [and] if you do it with a smile." He took that advice and soon was given more responsibility - and a job offer.

Employers pay about $700 per week for each apprentice. Year Up pays students a stipend throughout the year, with deductions or bonuses tied to behavior and performance.

"Everybody that's come to the table [as an apprentice] has actually come as advertised," says Peter Quinn, chief information officer for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. "There's a degree of quiet confidence ... a great work ethic, and just a desire to succeed. Very often that gets [hidden] and Year Up has a great way of bringing it out."

For adult learners, the barrier may be money or motivation, but a little help designed to fit their needs can go a long way, says Ms. Lees of CAEL. "There's a whole range of personal stories that come along with [determining] when is the time to learn. For some people it's, 'I need to show my kids that school is important.' Some are just tired of being in a minimum-wage job and say, 'Nobody's going to do this for me'.... They really have to be ready to learn, and that's different for each of us."