At age 20, Terry Sanborn thought his life's career had been laid out for him. Working for a fast food chain, the former youth offender, who had spent most of his high school days in the McLaren Youth Correction Facility, figured he'd move his way up to manager while starting a family. All that changed when he learned about the Portland Youth Builders.
Now a third-year construction trades apprentice, Sanborn says he wished he'd learned about the program earlier.
Sanborn and others hope a new multi-agency program funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation might give Portland's most vulnerable youth an earlier shot at a promising future.
"They don't know where they could go (with their lives)," said Sanborn, speaking of disconnected youths in the Portland area.
There are 8,000 young people ages 16 to 24 in Portland who are not in school and unemployed. Graduation rates at some high schools in Portland-area schools hover at 50 percent.
Now leaders of the Gates Foundation-funded program "Connected by 25" are pooling the resources of more than 35 civic leaders, policy makers, community organizations and businesses to ensure that every young man and woman in Portland is connected to education and/or a career by the time he or she turns 25.
To achieve this goal, the program will use research from the University of Washington to identify those students in eighth and ninth grade that are at the highest risk of dropping out. The Gates Foundation has provided a $646,000 grant, along with $200,000 from the Meyer Memorial Trust to help fund the program through October.
The Connected by 25 study tracked every student in the Portland Public Schools class of 2004 and found that students who experience similar failings - failure to meet eighth grade standards, failing one or more core classes in ninth grade, etc. - are "highly accurate predictors" of students who will not finish high school.
"There are not many school districts who are able to take this on," said Nicole Maher, director of the Native American Youth & Family Center, at a press conference held May 17.
County Chair Ted Wheeler said that he's particularly concerned by the number of minority youth who are at a higher risk of dropping out and who are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system.
Zeke Smith, staff leader for Connected by 25, and director of community engagement for Portland Schools Foundation, said the program's leaders found that youth who have been out of school for a while learn about programs primarily through word of mouth.
"We haven't done a good job communicating about programs (such as Youth Builders)," he said. "As opposed to a catalogue … we need to create a space that's more interactive."
The coalition's partners envision a two-tiered approach to Connected by 25. Part of the program, Smith said, will create a Web site and information hub that gives real-time information about programs that help young adults advance their education or job skills.
Although a large number of resources for education and job training already exist in Portland, leaders of Connected by 25 say their program will help make them more visible to the community. Sarah Stephan, a program spokeswoman, said program leaders are gathering geographic information to help identify underserved areas of the city - which might explain the discrepancies among Portland's high schools.
During the 2005-06 school year Jefferson High had an 8 percent dropout rate, with 51 out of 647 students leaving school for good. Jefferson's numbers are double that of the district as a whole, and Black students in Portland are twice as likely as White students to dropout. Last year, Portland Public Schools recorded that 6.4 percent of African American students, 8.4 percent of Hispanics, 3.3 percent of Whites, 2.7 percent of Asians and 6.6 percent of Native Americans dropped out of school.
Connected by 25 is an ongoing project - and has already taken nearly two years to get to this point. According to Tripp Somerville, director of policy and communications for the Portland Schools Foundation, the program is still in the very beginning stages of development and implementation.
This summer, Connected by 25's steering committee will recruit more organizations to take part while also collecting community input (visit www.connectedby25.org to fill out an online survey). Smith said business leaders are encouraged to share information about ongoing internships and job shadow or mentor opportunities. Public focus groups will eventually give input and, in the fall of 2007, the program's leaders will unveil a plan for helping at-risk eighth- and ninth-graders. Once a working model for underperforming eighth- and ninth-graders has been established, Stephan said further action plans for older students will be formulated.
"We want to learn about the students who are succeeding in spite of the system," said Leslie Rennie-Hill, district director of high schools.