Saving dropouts: Conservation Corps and YouthBuild programs deserve funding

By Bob Hennessy

Special to the Mercury News

POSTED:   02/26/2014 10:00:00 AM PST | UPDATED:   A DAY AGO


There is a desperate need to curb the high school dropout rate, which is 30 to 50 percent for Hispanics and blacks, and to provide job training while young people are in school. But California is eliminating funding to programs that enable dropouts to finish high school and receive paid job training.

This funding must be restored.

The alarming dropout rate is expensive to taxpayers and coaxes young people down the road to nowhere. A 2010 study by the Foundation for Educational Choice found that dropouts suffer from joblessness and low incomes and are prone to criminal acts and poor health. They tend to live in families dependent on state and federal support.

The San Jose Conservation Corps and Charter School, the affiliated program YouthBuild San Jose and similar organizations across the state attack this trend by turning around dropouts. Their students attend classes, receive paid job training in the trades, pass the California exit exams and graduate.

Upon graduation, these young adults are ready to hit the workforce as apprentice plumbers, electricians, construction workers or auto mechanics. Many attend college or trade school. Students flourish in vocational programs tailored to their interests and discover their strengths and leadership skills.

However, the California Department of Conservation is about to cut 75 percent of recycling funding from all local corps, slashing $1.6 million in San Jose, due to a lack of funds in the California redemptive account.

If the funding were maintained, more students could learn a trade, finish their diplomas and earn a living. And these young graduates are desperately needed in the workforce.

According to the Manufacturing Institute, 600,000 manufacturing jobs are vacant in the U.S. due to a shortage of skilled workers. A survey by Manpower of 35,000 employers found the lack of skilled tradespeople is the country’s number one hiring challenge. There is a dire need for plumbers, electricians and carpenters.

With the primary focus on preparing students for college, California’s high schools have all but stopped providing vocational training. Perhaps an education track in trades, rather than college, would prevent a number of students from dropping out in the first place.

For the time being, dropouts flock to the San Jose Conservation Corps and Charter School. There were 400 graduates last year with more projected for next year.

Conservation corps and YouthBuild programs are ready to lift these young adults out of the prospect of lifelong poverty or crime. There are 22 YouthBuild programs and 14 local corps in the state in low income communities.

Students include some who have been convicted of crimes. While the overall recidivism rate in the state is 65 percent, our programs have a track record of only 1.5 percent.

Cal-YOR is a post incarceration re-entry model developed by YouthBuild USA with an annual cost per student of $22,000 per year compared to $100,000 for other less-effective programs. This is a huge savings to the taxpayer and it’s beneficial to the youths, whose hope is to get an education, find a good job, become self-sufficient and raise a family.

It is imperative the Department of Conservation maintain its funding to local conservations corps and YouthBuild. We need to educate our high school dropouts and the previously incarcerated to stop the cycle of crime and wasted lives of too many of California’s youths. It is money well spent.

Bob Hennessy is founder and executive director of the San Jose Conservation Corps & Charter School. He wrote this column for this newspaper.