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YouthBuild Embarks on National Impact Study

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 21 Sep 2011 05:55pm | comments
Photo by Annie Gilbertson

YouthBuild, a prominent Mississippi GED and job placement program, is turning away half of the young people qualified for their services at two sites this year, Greenville and Jackson. MPB's education reporter, Annie Gilbertson, reports on the possible casualties of a new study expected to make or break YouthBuild.

It's Mental Toughness week at YouthBuild in Greenville, Mississippi—basically tryouts for a year of GED study while doing service projects with Habitat for Humanity.

Like other service programs for young adults, those selected will be conservatively compensated for their time – 20 bucks a day.Unlike other service programs, everyonehere is a high school dropout and a few are former convicts, sex workers, gang members and addicts looking for a leg up.

Cartlidge: I just hooked up in the wrong crowd and started using drugs, and I just felt like school isn’t important to me.  I thought being on the streets, hanging out with my friends was more important.”

At 23, Tarica Cartlidge has shed many parts of her chaotic childhood.  She kicked a cocaine habit, removed herself from a family she refers to as a long line of dope dealers and got her first job waiting tables. Looking for the next step or simply guidance, Cartlidge found YouthBuild and immediately latched onto the program director, Mable Starks, hoping to make an impression.

Cartlidge: I hope she thinks about me at night, because I think about her.  She says she can see things we can’t.  I wanted to ask her if she sees me in this program. Not orientation, but the program.

Last year, more than half of those admitted to YouthBuild Greenville enrolled in college or found work after the program and even more passed the GED. Like many trying out the classes, Cartlidge has a strong conviction that the program will make her life better.

Nat Sound: Young people rapping “Faith of the Heart” (goes to bed) 0:08

That's  partly what Mental Toughness Week is about - building that conviction.   All week, applicants participate in activities such as constructing their own rap out of the program's theme song, "Faith of the Heart" by Rod Stewart.

(Pull up and end bed music)

YouthBuild staff also observes participants for certain personality traits, such as the ability to listen and take responsibility for their own actions. 

But this year was different. After a single round of cuts prior to Mental Toughness Week, students were assigned seats randomly. Half got to stay and the other half will became the control group for an impact study.

YouthBuild USA, the national umbrella organization, agreed to the study after receiving stimulus dollars that doubled its funding.  The study is overseen by the Department of Labor and an independent research group, MDRC.

The details of the study are still being hammered out:  for example, how many sites will be evaluated and what survey questions to ask.  But MDRC has decided randomly choosing the participants is the most accurate way to gather comparison data between those who get into the program and those who do not. 

Mable Starks, Program Director at YouthBuild Greenville says it's tough to send away half of the qualified applicants based solely on the luck of the draw.

Starks:  I understand the need for the study, because we do need this information to pass on to congress to show how effective YouthBuild programs are.  But when you look at the young people affected by the study, that’s a different side of the coin.

Dorothy Stoneman, President and Founder of YouthBuild USA shares Starks' concerns.  But she’s also troubled by the fact that those who don’t make it into YouthBuild have to fail or struggle in order for the organization to prove its effectiveness to federal funders

Stoneman: You know, it’s a two edge sword here.  We would like the conditions in society to be as such that there would be no difference between the students that attend YouthBuild and those that go down the block and find something just as good.

While administrators understand the downside, they do believe that a random assignment study like this is the only way to stay accountable to Congress.  For example, another federally-funded GED program, the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, participated in a similar random assignment study, and has since used that data to help justify funding.

Tarica Cartlidge, the young woman who managed to beat her drug habit and get serious about school with YouthBuild Greenville, found out last week the results of the lottery.  One by one, the program director called each dismissed applicant into her office.  Cartlidge was the second one called.

Cartlidge: “I couldn’t do nothing, but turn away.  I had tears in my eyes and I just walked away.  I just turned around and went home. I cried the whole day, you can ask my girlfriend.  She was like, man, that door closed but another door will open.  I was like, “really?”

She’s hoping to find somewhere else to study for the GED. In 2 years, many of the young people assigned to the control group will be able to apply for a seat in the program again. But by then, Cartlidge will be 25 and one year too old for the program.

From the Southern Education Desk, for MPB News, I’m Annie Gilbertson.


Photo by Annie Gilbertson



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