TOPICS > Education

Helping High School Youth Learn by Doing

May 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Since 1994, YouthBuild has trained 110,000 high school dropouts around the country to put up houses for their community and think critically in the classroom while earning their GEDs or diplomas. As part of the American Graduate series, Paul Solman reports on a program designed to keep kids learning inside and outside of class.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next, the promise and the realities of teaching skills and trades to high school dropouts.

NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman reports for the American Graduate project on a program that aims to do that and much more.

PAUL SOLMAN: A back-to-high-school program for dropouts that teaches construction skills, as well as your traditional subjects.

Okay, so you’re reading Elie Wiesel’s “Night” about the Holocaust.

In literature class, today’s topic was Adolf Hitler and why Germans agreed to carry out the Final Solution.

KENDRA SIMS, student: I believe they did it out of fear, fear of Hitler and him controlling their lives, maybe.

PAUL SOLMAN: Eighteen-year-old Kendra Sims, eight months pregnant, dropped out of school for financial reasons. But now she plans to become a nurse, eventually a doctor, where critical thinking can make all the difference.

This is the Bloomington, Ill., outpost of the national non-profit YouthBuild. Since 1994, it has trained 110,000 students at 273 spots around the country to put up houses for their communities, teach marketable construction skills on the job, build critical thinking skills in the classroom, and build confidence in the students themselves.

The results are tangible — 120 YouthBuild homes stud the streets of Bloomington and its twin city, Normal, a former crack house where syringes littered the floor, an erstwhile empty lot now affordable housing for 10 families.

Drive 15 minutes outside town, through Illinois’ windswept fields and one its newest industries, power generation, and you will find an entire low-income subdivision built by former dropouts.

Jason Wallace now lives in the very home he helped build.

JASON WALLACE, Illinois: This is the laundry which turns into the master bath.

PAUL SOLMAN: YouthBuild McLean County is a charter school that’s part of the local system, bankrolled in part by the Department of Labor, of Housing and Urban Development, and by AmeriCorps.

Housed in one wing of a failed outlet mall, its only neighbor is a bingo parlor. That leaves plenty of room to teach English, math and construction to dropouts, ages 16 to 24, 50 percent of whom have done time, 50 percent of whom have children. But by the time they leave YouthBuild, more than 70 percent will have marketable building skills and their GED or high school diploma.

Nearly two out of three will go on to some kind of college, where they may learn a different meaning for the term deconstruction, which, here, they take quite literally.

JEREMIAH POWE, student: We get frustrated and we kind of just like break stuff and like get happy with it and go home laughing, like, hey, I just broke that, you know.

PAUL SOLMAN: They learn to tear down the old and put up the new.

ISAAC STEINBERG, student: Well, it’s hands-on. And I have never been a person that could just sit there all day.

PAUL SOLMAN: Hands-on is one YouthBuild edge, says Suzanne Fitzgerald, who runs the program here.

SUZANNE FITZGERALD, YouthBuild McLean County: If you’re someone who’s more mechanically inclined, if you’re someone who needs a project, touch it, feel it, take it apart, put it back together, you don’t see a lot of that available in the school systems or in the colleges. We would reach many more of our failing young people if we were able to teach in the way that they learned.

PAUL SOLMAN: Graduate Dontel Crowder says physical learning kept him in school at YouthBuild.

DONTEL CROWDER, graduate: Some people like learning like hands-on more than like just reading papers and stuff like that.

PAUL SOLMAN: Is that you?

DONTEL CROWDER: Yes. I like — I just like to get the job done. I like, you tell me what to do, you show me and that’s all I need to know. You know what I’m saying?

PAUL SOLMAN: Economics professor Mike Seeborg has studied those in the program.

MIKE SEEBORG, Illinois Wesleyan University: They move back and forth from skill training in construction to literacy training, working towards their diploma or their GED.

And as they do that, many of them see the relevancy more of literacy and math skills. And so, as they’re learning to build homes, they’re really building their lives and a future perhaps outside of construction.

PAUL SOLMAN: Hands-on is a key YouthBuild advantage.

ALICIA LENARD, YouthBuild McLean County: What do you need to do to make that goal a reality?

PAUL SOLMAN: Teachers like Alicia Lenard, a YouthBuild student herself 14 years ago, are as hard to elude as mentors in a 12-step program.

ALICIA LENARD: If a student is absent for three days, we’re convening in the hallways, have you seen Johnny? Where’s Johnny? And everyone’s like, oh, no. We got to go find him. And we track him down. And, you know, even if Johnny doesn’t want to come to school that day, we just go check on him and give him a hug and say, you know what? I love him. I need you at school tomorrow.

JEREMIAH POWE: They take time out and come and help you, like, this is the problem, and work with you. And I will be like, Okay, thanks. I appreciate it. And they’re helpful and they love you.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, bottom line, what’s not to like? It may seem like bad timing to train kids for today’s dormant construction industry, but it’s more job training than most kids get in school, and certainly most dropouts. So YouthBuild’s benefits seem obvious.

But it costs more than $16,000 per year per student.

Economist Robert Lerman.

ROBERT LERMAN, American University: Up until this point, we have not had really serious research that proves that it’s highly effective — it could be — or modest, or maybe even on just balance may not even capture its costs.

PAUL SOLMAN: YouthBuild director Fitzgerald’s response?

SUZANNE FITZGERALD: YouthBuild is a relatively expensive program. It’s a longer-term program than many of the other programs out there.

But when you look at any program, I think you have to look at what the return on investment is. And so, if you have young people coming out of YouthBuild and going back into the system, obviously that’s a poor return on investment. But that’s not what we see with YouthBuild.

PAUL SOLMAN: When you say, go back into the system, I’m not sure I understood what you meant.

SUZANNE FITZGERALD: I’m talking about going into the Department of Corrections.

PAUL SOLMAN: Exactly, says economist Mike Seeborg: Pay now so you don’t have to pay later for prison, welfare, food stamps, housing assistance.

MIKE SEEBORG: So the benefits basically from programs like this come from costs not incurred from dropping out and not finishing high school.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, let’s not romanticize. Only 3 percent to 4 percent of YouthBuild’s students have gone on to get a four-year college degree, compared to nearly 30 percent of students nationwide, though YouthBuild’s goal was, until recently, just getting kids a diploma or GED, in a district where 12 percent of the students still don’t make it to graduation, no better than the national average.

Here in Bloomington-Normal, however, the YouthBuild program, casual and yet rigorous, has become so popular, we were told kids are now actually dropping out of the local high schools to be eligible for the program.

“True?” we asked Kendra Sims.

KENDRA SIMS: Yes, it’s true, because YouthBuild is like a better environment. You’re not so much pressured how you are in high school when it comes to dressing or keeping up with other students or you’re afraid to raise your hand in class because you might be talked about.

Here, everybody understands everybody learns at different levels and everybody works together to help each other.

PAUL SOLMAN: So one way to get kids through school and into the job market is learning by doing, as they practice it here.

But the other answer is even simpler. Spend what YouthBuild spends to prepare young people for the work force.

Michael Donnelly, himself a former dropout and YouthBuild grad, is a guidance counselor at the high school in Normal.

So if you here at Normal had the kind of money per pupil as YouthBuild has, you could have the same level of success?

MICHAEL DONNELLY, guidance counselor, Normal West Community High School: Oh, yes, easily. I believe that wholeheartedly.

If you could go through and say, you know what, each one of these students, we’re going to give them a personal experience, we’re going to put all these resources around them to make sure that they succeed, to make sure that they do the things that they need to do, oh, yes, 100 percent, and schools would be a lot better.

PAUL SOLMAN: We wouldn’t have a dropout problem?

MICHAEL DONNELLY: I think we would still have a dropout, but I don’t know if it would be a problem.

PAUL SOLMAN: A problem that, at the moment, is hobbling more than 10 percent of America’s high school students, at a cost to them and us.

JEFFREY BROWN: The American Graduate series is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.