Published: Dec 11, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Dec 11, 2012 06:08 PM
The dog ate my homework.
Its a lame excuse for falling behind in school, but one that would provide comic relief for Gayle Erdheim. As the interim executive director of the nonprofit Achievement Academy of Durham (AAD) she hears only grown-up troubles from the mouths of teens. Most AAD students cope with daily burdens like hunger, single parenthood, poverty, disability or homelessness.
With the odds stacked against them, who could blame these kids if they quit? But AAD students arent looking for excuses or a way to skirt responsibility. They are looking for the path to a better life through education.
Durham ranks as the 12th Strongest Economy in America according to American City Business Journals. As our city grows you can bet the number of jobs grows too.
According to N.C. Department of Commerce statistics, employers want recruits that possess strengths in math, science, technology and health care. A few of the top in-demand occupations are registered nurse, math and science teacher, network systems administrator and data communications analyst.
When former President Bill Clinton addressed the Democratic National Convention, he said we have 3 million jobs open and unfilled in America right now.
With so many unemployed, how is it possible that millions of jobs are UNfilled?
Its not because the unemployed dont apply for the jobs. Rather, Clinton says, its because people that apply for them dont yet have the required skills to do them.
Will our young people have the skills to do the jobs? And will our home-grown talent be invited to the table of prosperity? I like to think that in our little corner of America we have what it takes to connect the dots. Our area boasts some of the finest institutions of higher education.
The reality is that Durham is a community of contrast.
Amid Durhams ongoing prosperity are up to 6,000 disconnected youth struggling to keep up. The achievement gap is a crisis that is well documented in local media and the disparity is the topic of scholarly reports.
Disconnected is a term frequently used to describe young people who are neither engaged in school nor employed full time. The good news is that Durham has an abundance of youth development programs all striving to guide lost youth to self-sustaining adulthood. If we could follow the money trail, wed also see an impressive cumulative financial investment in the cause.
Yet 40 percent of our young men and women ages 14-24 struggle academically or fall into the disconnected category according to MDC Program Associate Max Rose.
Rose, a lead advocate for building an education-to-career system, spoke at a luncheon for professionals in education and youth services. The lunch series, hosted by Duke-Durham Partnership, is an effort to foster an ongoing dialogue about efficiency and collaboration among our numerous private and public entities.
For those like Gayle Erdheim who work in the trenches every day, luncheons and speeches are somewhat of a luxury.
AAD is a no-frills program striving for continuous achievement and getting rapid results.
Theres a sense of urgency that is almost palpable, yet its tempered with tenderness and a dash of tough-love. An in-house case manager connects program participants to wrap around services and support.
So whether the issue is lack of food, child care or transportation, AAD staffers are looking for ways to mitigate hard life-obstacles.
I am old enough to recall a time when jobs were plentiful for high school dropouts. If you were reliable and hard-working, you could get promoted at work.
Those days are gone. Today low-skill jobs are transitional. Retired seniors take part time gigs like WalMart greeter to supplement social security income. Young people work in food service as a means to an end college graduation.
The Academys rigorous schedule keeps a GED test or practice-test around every corner. Concurrent with test preparation, students get help with the college application process.
After earning the High School Equivalency Diploma, some graduates return to the AAD classroom this time as a paid tutor and peer mentor.
Too many teenagers are growing up too fast. Some students take a detour. Many need an alternate path or extra support to re-connect with school and reach their full potential.
Our future is in the hands of Durhams most vulnerable young people. They are only truly disconnected if we ignore them.