By Arthur Samuels & Pagee Cheung
Miguel* was a member of the very first class at MESA Charter High School. Like many of our students, he had struggled academically. His family faced financial hardships and spent some time in the shelter system. Miguel had been forced to shoulder a series of adult burdens that the more fortunate among us would never dream of managing at his age. Despite this, he radiated positivity. He met every challenge head-on, developing as a reader. The young man who had been left back twice before 8th grade graduated in four years with a Regents Diploma. He went off to a CUNY community college, hoping eventually to become a teacher.
Miguel’s story does not have a fairy-tale ending. The support he received at MESA allowed him to overcome the external stressors. But once he left what we call our “love bubble,” they proved too much. Miguel didn’t make it through his first year of community college. With just a high school diploma and no additional training, he bounced around to a series of dead-end jobs. We ran into him pre-pandemic stocking shelves at CVS. He was working hard, earning an honest dollar. But we knew his aspirations for himself, and we had seen what he was capable of. He deserved better.
Miguel’s story is not unique. As of December, 2017, the three-year graduation rate at CUNY community college was only 22%. Indeed, because he was at least working, Miguel was better off than many of his peers. A recent report by the City’s Disconnected Youth Task Force found that nearly a quarter of young people between the ages of 18 and 24 are both fully out of school and out of work (“OSOW”). Nearly 80% of those are youth of color. For many of them, burdened with debt and lacking a viable path to self-sufficiency, the future can seem over before it has begun. Disconnected youth earn $31,000 per year less upon reaching adulthood, and are 52% less likely to self-report good or excellent health. From a macro standpoint, each OSOW individual places a dual financial burden on the city through lost tax revenue and the cost of support services. Reconnecting OSOW individuals could “yield an economic benefit approaching half a billion dollars per year.”
But the cost, of course, goes much deeper. Each one of these disconnected youth is an individual teeming with life and potential. What we lose when that potential goes unmet is incalculable. We have known Miguel since he was in middle school; the reality of his unrealized potential was a gut punch.
We are proud of the MESA we have built. In a district where the high school graduation rate has averaged just over 70% over the past four years, MESA has graduated 93% of its students on time in the same period. We achieve these results by providing an overwhelming amount of support to Miguel and his peers. Kids get highly targeted instruction, frequent communication with parents, and a loving, positive environment where they can thrive.
But once they leave MESA, their economic precariousness and lack of institutional connections make it extremely challenging for students like Miguel to find their way. Kids from middle class and wealthy families graduate high school with an extensive support system in place. Financial stability and networks allow for gap years and unpaid internships while they network and discover who they are. They get multiple chances and extra time to get their feet under themselves.
But kids like Miguel graduate onto the razor’s edge. Their families don’t have the resources to cushion any fall. They have to learn immediately how to navigate faceless and often unforgiving bureaucracies that no one in their family has ever confronted. According to the Pell Institute, just 11% of students from the lowest-income quartile earn bachelor’s degrees within six years, compared with 58% of students who come from the highest-income group.
We need to do better by Miguel and his peers. So at MESA, we’re launching an initiative called 13th grade. We will provide our graduates with the same high level of support for another year while they transition out of high school. For some of them, it will be connecting with their community college and ensuring their continued attendance and academic success. For others, it will be connecting them with workforce development programs in areas like information technology, medical services, and building trades. We’ll help them get accepted into training programs based on their interests, provide individualized support to help them persist through, and then assist in landing jobs when they complete the program.
13th grade could provide a model for the city to help reconnect OSOW youth. The silver lining to the report is that 75% of disconnected youth hold a high school degree. Schools are uniquely positioned to support graduates’ transitions because we have four-year relationships with our kids and families. They’ll respond to us because of that history and trust.
Right now high schools are disincentivized to do this work. We are evaluated on our graduation rate, not our long-term outcomes. We are funded for educating kids in our program, not for supporting alumni. If the city truly wants to reconnect youth like Miguel, a good starting point would be to fund alumni support systems at high schools, and then hold those schools accountable for where those graduates are two years down the line.
Miguel had a classmate, Jonathan.* Jonathan graduated MESA and went to a SUNY college upstate; he also struggled and left after a year. He was working in a liquor warehouse. But MESA connected him with a workforce development program that trained him to be a high-level customer support specialist at a tech company. He got a job that started him at over $16.50/hour with performance bonuses, growth opportunities and employee-sponsored benefits. He’s now working part-time and back in school. He’s reconnected.
Every child in our city deserves a brighter future. We’re going to do our part to make that happen.
Samuels & Cheung are the co-founders and leaders of MESA Charter High School.