National Press Club

Lincoln, Landrieu Seek to Expand Dropout Recovery Program

July 29, 2009 | By Mark Schoeff Jr. | mschoeff@workforce.com

Two senators urged their colleagues to expand a high school dropout
recovery initiative at a July 28 Newsmaker.

Sens. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Mary Landrieu, D-La.,
praised the National Guard Youth Challenge program for helping wayward
young people regain their footing and become economically productive.

The Senate recently added a Lincoln amendment to its version of defense
authorization legislation that would increase federal funding for the
effort, which is jointly sponsored by the Department of Defense and
states. Under current law, 60 percent of the funding comes from defense
and 40 percent from states.

Lincoln said the split is making it unaffordable for states. Under her
provision, the federal government would sponsor the first two years of
the program and then assume 75 percent of its costs, with states picking
up the remaining 25 percent.

The program, established in 1993, involves an intensive
17-month residential education recovery and mentoring program designed
to help at-risk youth between the ages of 16 and 18.

More than 90,000 young people have completed the program, with 74
percent earning a high school diploma or the equivalent. Of them, 30 percent
went to college, 25 percent entered the military and the balance
obtained jobs.

Preliminary results of a new study by MDRC, a non-profit New York
research organization, show that program participants are 35 percent
more likely to earn a high school degree or the equivalent than dropouts
who remain on their own. The study was released at the Newsmaker.

The program instills discipline and goal-setting habits in the young
people through what was described as a quasi-military approach during
the five-month residential portion.

“It gives them the structure, the confidence they need to look within
themselves and figure out who they are,” Lincoln said. “This is a
critical program for the young people who have fallen through the
cracks.”

Landrieu said she has seen evidence of individual and family healing at
program sites throughout Louisiana.

“These are kids that are within a few steps of drugs or gangs or
homelessness,” Landrieu said. “There is a lot of weeping for joy (at
graduation ceremonies) because the children have found themselves. This
is a program that works. It is indisputable.”

Caressa Gibson, 21, credits the initiative with restoring her life. She
had given up on high school to spend time carousing with her friends
before entering the Free State Youth Challenge Program in Maryland. She
said that the rigorous agenda gave her purpose and direction.

“I learned a lot of life coping skills,” said Gibson, who now works at
the Port of Baltimore and is taking classes at the Central Texas College
extension at Boling Air Force Base. “It helped change my life.”

With more than 1.2 million kids dropping out of high school annually,
the program is meeting a crucial need, according to Jennifer Buck,
deputy assistant secretary for Reserve Affairs at the Pentagon. She said
that if quitting school were a physical ailment it would constitute a
national emergency.

“There would be no stone left unturned to find a cure for that disease,”
she said.