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Op-Ed: Reconnecting ‘Opportunity Youth’ Will Help Communities Thrive

The chance to help disenfranchised young people make something of their lives is an unprecedented opportunity in many NJ cities and towns

robert clark
Robert Clark

Walk around Newark on a weekday and you will see a lot of young men and women of school age who aren’t in school. In a city where about 600 kids a year drop out, it would be tempting to call this a failure. Really, it’s an opportunity.

That’s why those who see the potential of young people aged 16 to 24, who are neither engaged in school nor the workforce, call them “opportunity youth.”  

Disengaged youth are more likely to get caught up in the legal system, become parents prematurely, and face mental and physical health challenges. The jobs they do find pay too little to get by. These trends are particularly grim for young black men: one in four who drop out of high school will end up in prison.  

When opportunity youth can be reengaged, however, it’s a gain not just for them but also for the communities where they live and society as a whole. The reasons they become disengaged vary. “For millions of American youth, the road to adulthood takes a number of detours,” notes a report by Civic Enterprise for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

It’s a costly road for all of us. Estimates are that our approximately 6 million opportunity youth cost the nation over $70 billion a year — from lost earnings and tax revenue to increased spending on crime, social services, and healthcare.

Heightened awareness of the situation was the impetus for a nationwide initiative begun in 2013, from Los Angeles and New York to the Hopi reservation in Arizona, supported by the Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund, a collaborative developed and led by the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions. Corporate America is paying attention too: Over 30 companies have formed a coalition with the goal of hiring and “up-skilling” 100,000 opportunity youth.

Newark is home to the first New Jersey-based opportunity youth effort. It’s a collaboration that includes the city, its public schools, Rutgers University-Newark, local foundations, and a broad coalition of community-based organizations. The breadth of the partnership reflects both the vision so many Newark residents share of a thriving city where no one’s potential is wasted, and the multifaceted approach needed to help opportunity youth. As diverse as the reasons for disconnecting are, so are the actions needed to bring our youth back. It takes a variety of educational approaches, training, mentorships willing employers, and intensely coordinated community efforts.

Only then can we harness the potential of this group of previously disengaged and overlooked young people.  

“Overlooked” is a key word here. America’s school districts often aren’t equipped to provide the necessary supports. Opportunity youth, unlike students with disabilities or those with limited English proficiency, are not a protected class under federal or state education laws. Local education agencies are not required to reengage young people once they have disconnected from schooling after a certain age and time. City agencies and community groups often work to fill in the gaps, but their efforts aren’t coordinated or comprehensive enough to catch most students who fall through the cracks.  

In the months since OYN started up in Newark, we’ve engaged in a community-driven strategy that streamlines opportunity-youth reengagement, assessment, academic and nonacademic services, and intervention. It begins with our new Reengagement Center on Bergen Street — a gateway that facilitates transfers and placements for returning out-of-school youth, using individual evaluations to place young people in a growing array of alternative education and training venues.

Spurred by an initial investment of $2.5 million by the Foundation for Newark’s Future, through a donation from Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Newark’s strategy to support our opportunity youth has the potential to be the most comprehensive in the country.   

The breadth of its portfolio distinguishes Newark’s approach. Options include two district alternative high schools, six community-based organization programs offering credit-bearing courses, Rutgers University-Newark as a research partner, New Jersey’s first alternative charter high school, and a new citywide initiative called the Mayor’s Street Academy, created to reengage disconnected youth through social-emotional learning, civic proficiency, community outreach, and volunteerism.  

For too long, opportunity youth have languished in the education and economic backwaters. Each of these young people represents locked-up potential that could be contributing to the common good.  

When young people are neither learning nor earning, we all fall behind. So let’s stop focusing on what they’ve left and lost, and instead help opportunity youth realize their fullest potential.

Robert Clark, executive director of YouthBuild Newark, leads Newark’s Opportunity Youth Network.

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