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Opportunity Youth in Texas

Identifying and Reengaging the State’s Disconnected Young People

Opportunity Youth in Texas

Reconnection Strategies

This section highlights themes from interviews the Dallas Fed held with service providers around the state who work with opportunity youth. These are not necessarily recommendations; rather, they summarize common and often effective approaches to reengaging opportunity youth. Interviewees stressed the importance of tailoring any reconnection strategy to each locality and population rather than adopting a “one size fits all” approach. Many organizations serve opportunity youth across the state; this section presents insights from a select few.

Location and Transportation

“We were intentional about our location to … minimize the transportation [issue].… We literally mapped out where all of the bus stops were to make sure that … if you want to come to us, there is a way to get to us.

–Rebecca Flores, education program administrator, city of San Antonio

In each of the three opportunity youth focus groups, participants listed transportation as one of the many barriers to reengagement. The creators of San Antonio’s NXT Level Youth Opportunity Center intentionally located the center in a part of town where there was high unemployment and a large high school dropout rate. They also made sure that the center was accessible by the city’s bus system, knowing that clients without personal vehicles would need to access the center as well. Other practitioners echoed the importance of bringing opportunities to communities rather than expecting clients to seek them out. Some staff members even give rides to program participants who would otherwise have to miss school or a program activity.

Continuity of Services

Both interviewees and focus group participants noted the importance of the longevity of services. This means that the program continues to support the opportunity youth it serves long after they accomplish their first goal. In San Antonio, NXT Level staff continue to work with their clients throughout the reengagement process until their long-term goals are met, even helping them find higher-paying jobs once they’re already employed. By doing so, program staff can help opportunity youth navigate setbacks and give them guidance on how to take the next step in their education or career until they feel self-reliant. The breadth of services is also important. Even as staff at Ballew Academy work with students through graduation and beyond, the local Pharr–San Juan–Alamo Independent School District (PSJA ISD) invests in students’ parents. PSJA ISD offers adult education programs with subjects ranging from English as a second language to computer technology. The district sees this as a chance to transform whole families, not just a single generation.

Mental Health Services

Most practitioners mentioned the role mental health plays in disconnection and the importance of treating these issues as part of the reengagement process. Clients at NXT Level Center are four times more likely to have three or more adverse childhood experiences (divorce, substance abuse, etc.) than the general population. According to Juliet Stipeche at the city of Houston, Hurricane Harvey exacerbated mental health issues among opportunity youth, and the effects of that trauma linger on. To address these issues, Ballew created three student groups that receive specially designed counseling services based on the following issues: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), drugs and alcohol, and anxiety and depression.

Cultural Competency

“There is an investment [in opportunity youth], but it’s already prescribed when it hits the ground. There’s not a lot of contact with opportunity youth in Dallas to figure out what they really want and what they would benefit from.”

–Laurie Bouillion Larrea, president, Workforce Solutions Greater Dallas

Cultural competency comes down to how program staff interact with clients. Rebecca Flores at the city of San Antonio notes that while it takes time to find employees who can successfully integrate into this culture, it’s well worth the effort in the long run. Some NXT Level staff are even former opportunity youth themselves and can serve as both life coaches and role models for their clients. Another aspect of cultural competency is the method of communication between staff and client. Many programs mentioned that their staff text clients often, if not every day, just to check in. Some staff even use Instagram if the client prefers it.

Broadly, practitioners noted the importance of seeking input from opportunity youth to identify preferred communication methods and needed services. This can help to build trust and lead to a more tailored, and therefore more effective, plan for the client.

Cross-Sector Collaboration

Many practitioners stressed the importance of cross-sector partnerships, noting that when organizations operate in silos, program participants are ultimately the ones who suffer. Cross-sector partnerships can include local government, nonprofits, school districts, institutions of higher education, philanthropic organizations and private companies (see the sidebar “Hiring Opportunity Youth: Perspectives from Employers” to learn more about private companies’ involvement).

An example of a positive outcome from a cross-sector partnership comes from Travis County, where the Austin Opportunity Youth Collaborative has been working to reconnect youth for years. In this example, Austin Community College and nonprofits working with opportunity youth have a data-sharing agreement that alerts partners when a student has issues at school, such as attendance. The service provider can then contact the student to pinpoint what is wrong and find a solution before the problem grows larger.

Another example of a cross-sector partnership is Educate Texas’ Bridge to College and Career Success (BCCS) initiative in the Gulf Coast region. This initiative, funded by JPMorgan Chase & Co. and the Trellis Foundation, facilitates partnerships and the programs that are born as a result. These programs support opportunity youth as they undergo job training or navigate the world of higher education. Many practitioners and focus group participants featured in this report are part of the BCCS initiative.

Elimination of Small-Dollar Barriers

“Just being able to write a $200 or $500 check to them can make all the difference in the world.”

–Ann B. Stiles, president and CEO, Project GRAD

Both Austin Community College and Project GRAD, a Houston nonprofit, have helped students pay relatively small fines such as parking violations or library fees. If these fines are not paid right away, students often cannot enroll in classes and may ultimately drop out of school as a result. From the school’s point of view, these small fines and fees are standing in the way of future tuition payments to the school. For nonprofits like Project GRAD, the ability to transfer money to clients quickly and without much paperwork is a simple way to make a big impact. Project GRAD plans to expand its ability to make these quick payments in the future.

Caring for the Most Vulnerable

“If you design systems in which the most vulnerable are able to access and have a reasonable amount of opportunity to become engaged, then you design a system that is going to be adequate for everyone.”

–Juliet Stipeche, director of education, city of Houston

Practitioners mentioned that in order to address the issue of opportunity youth fully, it is important to design their programs with the most vulnerable in mind. At the NXT Level Center, some clients are in their 20s and are reading at the fourth- or fifth-grade level. This has led the program to focus services on those with low literacy. In Hidalgo County, PSJA ISD opened Sonia M. Sotomayor Early College High School, a dual-enrollment school specifically for teenage mothers, a population that is particularly at risk of dropping out. Workforce Solutions Greater Dallas has partnered with ResCare Workforce Services, a service provider that focuses on engaging foster youth and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) youth in workforce programs. Each of these practitioners emphasized that the issue of opportunity youth will persist until the most vulnerable populations are also reconnected.

Hiring Opportunity Youth: Perspectives from Employers

“The challenges that [opportunity youth] face are very real to every aspect of their life … and I think it’s a beautiful thing when two organizations—a nonprofit and a for-profit—work together because at the end of the day, everybody wins … you get a better-trained employee [and] you get someone whose life is way better than when they started.”

–Rudy Requeno, career development manager, MCA Communications

In 2015, Starbucks launched its hiring commitment to opportunity youth. As part of this mission, Starbucks was one of the founding companies of the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative. These companies have held seven resource fairs around the country with the purpose of preparing opportunity youth for the workplace—some were even hired on the spot. As of 2019, Starbucks has hired over 75,000 opportunity youth nationwide and expects to hire 100,000 by 2020.

MCA Communications is a commercial cabling company in Houston that has partnered with a local nonprofit, SERJobs, to hire opportunity youth in entry-level positions. SERJobs recruits and screens candidates and provides hired opportunity youth with weeklong job readiness training in which they learn basic professionalism. MCA interviews candidates jointly with SERJobs and provides opportunity youth with three-day technical training before their first day on the job.

Both Starbucks’ senior manager for global social impact, Kelly Sheppard, and MCA’s career development manager, Rudy Requeno, noted the importance of building the soft skills of opportunity youth. As with anyone starting their first job, Sheppard says, opportunity youth acquire interpersonal skills and learn about time management. Requeno emphasizes the importance and effectiveness of the weeklong job-readiness training, which allows opportunity youth to demonstrate their commitment to their new position and learn valuable skills before arriving at the workplace.

Once opportunity youth are hired, both MCA and Starbucks treat them equally as any other employee. However, both companies said that it is helpful to have someone at the company who is familiar with opportunity youth. At MCA, that person is Requeno. He meets with each new hire to help anticipate problems that may arise, such as transportation, and brainstorm solutions. His role, he says, is to be the broker between opportunity youth and their supervisors to make sure both parties are set up for success. At Starbucks, Sheppard says, store managers play that role, and they are better equipped for that task when they are educated about opportunity youth. While the life experiences of opportunity youth may differ from those of other employees, “we can prepare for differences,” she says.

Requeno and Sheppard tout the benefits of hiring opportunity youth. For them, it’s a win-win. “Sometimes an employer might not think it’s the best business decision,” says Requeno, “but I think with the right approach and the right model, it definitely can be.” Opportunity youth are an untapped resource that many employers are missing out on, Sheppard says. Not only does Starbucks benefit from the talent opportunity youth bring, but the employees gain confidence and the chance to explore new career paths. Both companies invest in their employees by offering them the chance for advancement—and, in Starbucks’ case, the option to have their undergraduate education paid for.


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