• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Tuesday 02nd December, 2014

Rising to the challenge of a second chance for “dropout” youth

strong>An estimated five million 16 to 24-year olds in the United States are not in education or employment at any one time. The National Guard Youth Challenge Program (NGYCP) – combining residential training with community support – shows how positive youth development interventions offer some of them a “second chance”. The first randomized controlled trial used to evaluated the 17-month program since its creation in 1993 has found favorable impacts on educational achievement and employment being maintained among young people three years after they started to take part. The value of “second chance” programs is indicated in America by research showing how youth that have dropped out of high school and are out of work risk adult unemployment, poverty, health problems, welfare dependence and criminal involvement. However, a number of training programs funded by the US Government since the 1980s have struggled to achieve sustained improvements in employment or earning, even when participants have gained general educational development (GED) qualifications or vocational training certificates.Military-style structureThe NGYCP, which has been completed by 100,000 young people in more than half all US States, is supported by the Department of Defense. It was introduced through a belief that unemployed youth would benefit from exposure to elements of military-style structure as well as the National Guard’s community service mission. During the 22-month residential phases of the Challenge, young people are divided into platoons and squads, live in barracks, have their hair cut short and are subject to military-style discipline. However, there are no requirements for military service afterwards and the focus of the training program is on team work, leadership, citizenship, community service, life skills, health, job skills and – most of all – education. Participants are helped to find placements in employment, education or the military for the one-year post-residential course and also nominate their own mentor (typically a family member, school teacher or religious leader) to support and monitor their progress.The evaluation, led by MDRC, a nonprofit social research organization, recruited 3,074 young people aged between 16 and 18 from ten Challenge sites. To qualify, they not only had to have dropped out or been expelled from school and be unemployed, but also drug-free and not in trouble with the law beyond juvenile status offenses. Matching the gender balance of the national program, 84 per cent were male. Around 41 per cent identified as white, 40 per cent black and 14 per cent Hispanic. In all, 2,320 young people were randomly allocated to the Challenge program and another 754 young people to a control group who took no part in the intervention.College credits and earningsThe three-year follow-up study was completed by surveying a sample of 722 participants in the Challenge group and 451 from the control group. Although they differed somewhat from the overall group (for example, by being rather more male, white and Hispanic) analysis found that this did not significantly alter what their treatment status was likely to be after 38 months.The results after three years showed that while 72 per cent of the Challenge group had achieved a high school diploma or GED, only 55 per cent of the control group had done so. Young people who took part in the Challenge were also significantly more likely to have received some college credits and to have been employed for a longer time with higher earnings during the past year. Average earnings were $13,500 in the previous year, compared with $11,250 among the control group. Interestingly, program participants were no more or less likely to join the military afterwards than the control group.Stronger impacts were observed for those who had entered the Challenge when they were aged 17 or 18, those for those who were still 16. Indeed, there was some indication that 16-year olds, by taking part in the program, reduced the likelihood of completing a high school diploma, because they achieved a less prestigious GED qualification instead. In addition, there were behavioral outcomes, where the program failed to produce significant, positive results. These included criminal convictions, involvement in binge drinking and frequent marijuana use. There was also evidence that the Challenge may have impacted adversely on health, since those in the intervention group were more overweight after three years than the control group. The researchers suggest that participants were unable to maintain the healthy lifestyle enforced on the residential course once they returned to the community. The negative effects of Challenge at three years follow up need to be further explored. It is also possible that the program, by being voluntary and based on an intensive residential course, attracted youth who were already more motivated than most to make changes in their lives.Even so, its sustained impact on employment and educational outcomes is impressive and suggests that Challenge really does give some young people a second chance. According to the evaluation researchers this is likely to be a direct consequences of the positive youth development approach that was taken:“Rather than target their deficits and problematic behaviors, Challenge sought to identify and develop critical strengths and competencies for navigating the transitions to adulthood.”*********Reference: Millenky, M., Schwartz, S.E.O., & Rhodes, J.E. (2014). Supporting the Transition to Adulthood among High School Dropouts: An Impact Study of the National Guard Youth Challenge Program. Prevention Science, 15, 448-459. doi10.1007/s11121-013-0388-4.

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