As reported in the Source Weekly Oct. 19, Oregon's graduation rate improved from 2014 to 2015, increasing from 72 to 73.8 percent. But even with that increase, our state still ranked third-worst in the nation. Meanwhile, local employers continually lament the lack of tangible job skills among Oregon graduates.
Adequate funding for our public schools is one way to tackle the issue—but that's not the only one. In Central Oregon, Heart of Oregon Corps is a shining example of how to meet the needs of young people who may not fit into the traditional school setting, or who may have family or social issues that keep them from succeeding.
The organization uses a "work-earn-learn" model to support the 16 to 24 year participants from the tri-county area. Many participants deal with poverty, substance abuse, homelessness, disabilities or a lack of parental guidance, which causes them to struggle in a traditional school setting.
The organization's six programs include YouthBuild, in which youth take part in construction projects that teach them hands-on trade skills while working on affordable housing projects. Meanwhile, the Youth Conservation Corps, Americorps and the Stewardship programs give participants hands-on skills in environmental or forest-related projects. In the Thrift Store program, participants gain retail skills.
When youth enter the program they begin in a classroom setting, typically working toward a GED or diploma. As they move through the one-year program, participants do more hands-on training. To combat the issue of poverty that made school success difficult for many in the first place, each participant earns a stipend.
"What we're doing with them is we're actually teaching them the soft skills," says Program Director Kara Johnson. "We have young people who want to be nurses...there's some that are going to college and there's some who are going back to high school... and there's some, they're ready to make money."
During this election cycle, a lot of educational conversations circled around the need for a more job-ready workforce. Legislators took aim at the issue with Measure 98, meant to fund dropout prevention and career and college readiness. Johnson says Heart of Oregon Corps' efforts are yet another way to tackle those problems.
"What a lot of these young people are missing is that hands-on in the schools. That vocational training. That's what's missing for them. And when they come to us, we're giving them that," says Johnson.
Scott Powell, 18, is a participant in the YouthBuild program, which he began in January. Powell, a former student at Madras High School, says he was about a year behind in credits when he found Heart of Oregon Corps.
"Before I came to YouthBuild... I slacked off, I didn't pay attention to the teachers and just had a general bad attitude towards other students," Powell says. "I had no plan. I was just basically going off the fact that I didn't want to do anything more than what I was doing, which was basically nothing," Powell laments.
Powell says the small-group structure and the team-building activities the group did at the start of the program forced him to engage in ways he hadn't done before—and that fostered a new level of accountability that led to his current success. Today, he's on track to finish high school and to join an apprenticeship program for electricians. He's also a leader in the program's Youth Policy Council.
Powell has this to say to young people who may be where he once was: "Take a look at your life, what you're doing and take a look at someone you view as a role model, and if you're not doing the steps that at least will remind you of what they're doing, then you're not going to get the same goal that they got."