When Lily Gallego began attending Carl Hayden Community High School as a freshman, she struggled to keep up with schoolwork and didn’t feel that teachers paid much attention to her.
“It was really fast-paced,” she said. “If you didn’t get it, oh, well. You moved on to the next lesson. It made me feel really frustrated so I stopped going.”
Gallego was 15 years old when she dropped out of high school and went to live with her boyfriend. She then got pregnant and gave birth to a girl.
For months, Gallego didn’t work or go to school. She was what experts call a disconnected youth. The term is used to describe young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who neither work nor attend school.
A recent study by the research group Measure of America found that U.S. Representative Ruben Gallego's 7th Congressional District has the highest percentage of disconnected youth in the nation. A whopping 25.6 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds who live in Gallego’s district are considered disconnected, compared to the national average of 13.8 percent.
The study also looked at 98 of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States and found that metro Phoenix has the 13th-highest rate of youth disconnection in the country, at 17.3 percent. Nationally, one in seven young adults is disconnected, compared to one in five in greater Phoenix.
Better news is that the rate of youth disconnection in Phoenix has gone down. A previous study by Measure of America released in 2013 found that Phoenix had the nation’s highest rate of youth disconnection, at 18.8 percent.
Kristen Lewis, co-director of Measure of America, said disconnected youth have many disadvantages. They are more likely than their connected counterparts to live in poverty, drop out of high school, have a child, or have a disability. Many come from neighborhoods that have high levels of racial segregation and where youth disconnection is an entrenched problem. Their struggles with education and employment also tend to mirror those of their parents.
“I think too often we say that if these kids would just try and pull up their pants . . . that somehow they can turn everything around on their own,” Lewis said. “But the problems they face are really too complicated for them to turn around on their own. They need society’s support.”
In Phoenix, efforts are under way to re-engage disconnected youth. A charter school designed especially to serve this group of young people is tentatively scheduled to open August 2016 on the campus of South Mountain Community College.
The school will be called Hope College and Career Readiness Academy. Students will be able to not only pursue a high school diploma, but to gain experience in the workforce through a series of vocational classes and internships. Dual enrollment also will be offered.
The school is said to be the first of its kind in the state, though there are already some alternative schools that target youth who’ve dropped out and want to go back to school.
Lily Gallego, now 18, is enrolled in one of these alternative schools. She has been attending Continued Hope High School South in South Phoenix since January of last year. She plans to graduate with a high school diploma in 2017 and is thinking about going to college to become a surgical nurse.
“I knew I needed to do something and become better so I can give my baby a better life,” she said, explaining why she left the legion of disconnected youth and went back to school.
Gallego said her new school is “a way better fit for me.” With only about 12 students in her class, she enjoys the individualized attention she gets from her teacher. She also likes that the curriculum is online, allowing her to move at her own pace.
Darcy Renfro, director for The Arizona We Want Institute, said she supports these types of schools as well as those that provide occupational certificates or associate degree programs for students. She also likes the idea behind re-engagement centers, which help youth who’ve dropped out of high school get back on track academically.
“It’s important to understand the reasons kids are dropping out of school and provide them an alternative,” Renfro said. “Just having them re-enroll back in the school they dropped out of, for example, may not be the right answer.”
The Arizona Mayors Education Roundtable, which brings together 10 mayors from across the state and was recently awarded a $200,000 grant to work on raising statewide graduation rates, also has gotten involved with efforts to reduce youth disconnection.
Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, part of the roundtable, said he was “shocked and saddened” when he learned about the high percentage of youth who are unemployed or not in school in Phoenix. He said he was also concerned when he learned that there was no comprehensive system in place to effectively deal with this issue.
“The reason I personally want to be involved in this issue is because I really believe it’s going to be hard for the city of Phoenix … to become a leading economic city when such a high percentage of our young people are not fully participating in this economy,” Stanton said.
The round table has been exploring the social and fiscal losses to Arizona caused by disconnected youth. Last summer, it released a report showing that each disconnected youth costs state and local governments a lifetime of $929,570.
Much of the loss is driven by the economic insecurity that disconnected youth face later in life. They are more likely to get low-wage jobs that offer few benefits, engage in criminal activity, have poor health, and rely on government-assistance programs.
“There’s certainly an economic cost, but there’s also an opportunity cost associated with disconnected youth,” Stanton said. “We’re missing out on a significant amount of talent. That’s what I would argue is the number one cost.”
Even before the Arizona Mayors Education Roundtable began to look into the social and fiscal losses for disconnected youth, the Maricopa County Education Service Agency had started to bring awareness to the issue.
It held two summits in 2014 — one in May and the other in October — that brought together educators and community and business leaders from across Maricopa County. They heard from re-engagement experts about strategies that have worked in other states and decided to form Opportunities for Youth, a coalition of more than 120 local organizations.
The coalition wants to reduce Maricopa County’s youth-disconnection rate to 11 percent by 2020. To get there, the coalition wants to create education and career opportunities for more than 35,000 youth annually.
Though the coalition is still early in its formation, a team of business and education leaders has already started brainstorming an idea of creating a one-stop-shop where disconnected youth can learn about job openings and training.
“It’s really important that the community rallies around these youth and gives them opportunities,” said Kristine Morris, chief deputy superintendent of the Maricopa County Education Service Agency. “We’re so quick to push people out, but it’s so hard to get them back in — and we want to change that.”
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Morris also pointed to a job fair for disconnected youth that’s scheduled for October 30 at the Phoenix Convention Center. It’ll be hosted by the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, a nationwide effort led by companies committed to training and hiring 100,000 disconnected youth by 2018.
More than 20 companies are to be on hand conducting job interview. Recruiters from various high schools, colleges and universities also plan to be there to help youth get back into school. Other services that’ll be provided include resume writing and job-skills training.
Lewis from Measure of America said Phoenix is “doing an amazing job” of responding to the high levels of youth disconnection. She said even though she doesn’t have data to prove it, she thinks these efforts are “making a difference” and “giving disconnected youth a powerful message.”
“A lot of these kids, they think that society doesn’t care about them,” Lewis said. “And these efforts really send a different message. It tells them Phoenix cares about you, and we’re not giving up on you so don’t give up on yourself.”