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Boston’s School-to-Career Program Gives Disadvantaged Students Running Start

Escarolyn Garcia, second from right, in 2011 with other students selected as Judge Davis S. Nelson Fellows. Photos courtesy of Escarolyn Garcia

Escarolyn Garcia grew up learning several skills that would be useful in the workplace. She participated in pageants as a teenager, and they taught her about communication, self-presentation, and poise. But even as a 9th grader at Boston’s New Mission High School, she realized she still needed some help to improve her chances at getting a job.

“I wanted to start early,” said Garcia, 19.

Getting a job as a high school freshman without work experience or specialized skills can be particularly difficult. But Garcia was determined. So when a representative from the Boston Private Industry Council (PIC) came to her school to talk about workplace opportunities, she took notice. The PIC is Boston’s Workforce Investment Board and school-to-career intermediary.

“It was something I was interested in, so I got involved,” Garcia said.

Escarolyn Garcia worked on her presentation skills as a pageant participant as a teenager.

It turned out to be a wise move, especially during a period when youth unemployment in Massachusetts was on the way to doubling. In 2011, nearly one in seven, or 13.8 percent, young adults ages 16-24 were unemployed according to a recent analysis of U.S. Census data by the Economic Policy Institute. In 2000 it was one in 15, or 6.7 percent.

Over the past dozen years it has become increasingly difficult for young people across the United States to find jobs. A recent report for the Children’s Defense Fund found youth employment is at its lowest level since World War II.

Back in 2004, the city of Boston analyzed its population and recognized that its youth were not only growing in number, but that many of them were becoming increasingly disconnected from education and the labor market. Young Latinos and African Americans and the poor were at a particular disadvantage. Armed with that information, city leaders, businesses and schools began to create a plan to improve the educational opportunities, connections to work and graduation rates.

“To succeed, young men and women need to develop other skills … we call them developmental skills: resilience, persistence, the ability to manage time, to start a project and to finish it,” said Neil Sullivan, Executive Director of the PIC. “We all know as employers that these are the characteristics that make adults successful. We don’t necessarily teach them in high school so we are trying to compensate for that by brokering opportunities for young people where you’ll learn how to be successful.”

Garcia became one of 3,000 Boston high school students students annually to receive a job or internship opportunity through the PIC. Her first was as a summer receptionist for the YMCA training office in Boston. And for each of the next two years the PIC connected her with new workplace experiences. As a sophomore she earned a Boston Bar Association internship, a position usually reserved for juniors. The next year she was selected for a fellowship, working alongside Federal Court Judge George O’Toole and his staff learning court management and office operations.

“I feel like those jobs gave me more networking skills,” said Garcia. She also credits her time at the courthouse for teaching her more about responsibility and patience.

Garcia is now a freshman majoring in communication at Bridgewater State University, about 30 miles south of Boston, and balances her studies with an on-campus job. She once considered a career in law, having spent time working in the legal system. But now Garcia is leaning toward a career in journalism. She wants to be a newscaster. She thinks her early work experiences will give her a leg up on any competition.

American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help local communities across America find solutions to the dropout crisis.

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