As high school dropout rates remain a serious concern in Portland, city policy makers and activists are exploring new ways to keep kids on the right track. An array of efforts, run by both the city and nonprofit organizations, are aimed at involving youths with the local economy, as well as give them the necessary skills and experience to be successful in college and beyond.

On Wednesday, July 6, with three members present, the city council unanimously passed a measure, jointly proposed by Mayor Sam Adams and Commissioner Dan Saltzman, which will provide $500 tax credits for businesses that offer “career readiness” training for youths, and businesses that hire youths in foster care.

Adams, who originally proposed the career readiness credit, says that the tax credits are part of the city’s ongoing education strategy. “It’s all part of the menu of programs and initiatives and outreach that all lead to the same thing,” he says. “And that is to reduce the dropout rate by half and to increase the number of kids that go on to college and skills programs after high school.”

The career readiness tax credits, which are capped at 75 per year citywide, are available to businesses that offer workplace experience for local youths, including office tours, academic programing, and internships. Individual businesses will be allowed to apply for four credits per year. “Four in ten employers say that high school graduates are unprepared for the expectations they face with entry level jobs,” says Adams. “We’re trying to lower the employer’s sense of risk by offering a tax credit.”

The foster youth employment opportunity credit is capped at 25 credits per year citywide. Businesses can receive up to four such credits, which are available on a first come, first served basis.

The tax credits, Adams says, will be an important addition to Summer Youth Connect, a four-year series of interventions for targeted high school students run by various public and nonprofit groups. The first and arguably most critical part of Summer Youth Connect is Ninth Grade Counts, a program for incoming Multnomah County high school students who are considered more likely to drop out of school, as determined by both statistical academic measures and anecdotal evidence.

summwerwoks youth jobs program.
Photo: Worksystems, Inc.

Nate Waas Shull, Director of Community Engagement for the Portland Schools Foundation (PSF), the nonprofit that coordinates Ninth Grade Counts, describes the program as a partnership between local community-based organizations (CBOs), schools, and businesses that come together to help youths prepare themselves for school and all that comes afterwards. “These are independent programs that choose to come together and share some pooled resources,” he says. “[They] meet on a monthly or every other month basis throughout the school year to say, ‘What’s your approach to engaging kids? What’s a good summer curriculum? What are the field trips we should all be focusing on doing?’”

During the program, the students do everything from visiting corporate offices to learning from academic experts about the unique challenges of high school. Waas Shull says that at-risk kids need help not only with matters of writing and geometry but also with the more nitty-gritty aspects of high school, like finding one’s locker or dealing with pesky upperclassmen. What’s more, the program familiarizes students with workplace settings, something with which they may have little to no experience.

Participating groups include the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization (IRCO), the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA), and El Programa Hispano, which is affiliated with Catholic Charities. Many colleges support the program with classes and campus visits, including Marylhurst University, which partners with Ninth Grade Counts to provide teachers-in-training for academic programs over the summer.

Waas Shull says that PSF hopes to expand the Ninth Grade Counts model “to all points along the educational continuum.” The initiative, called Cradle to Career, is a way for local organizations and businesses to help throughout the entire academic lives of at-risk youths. “This sort of cross-sector partnership,” he says, “from districts to nonprofits to businesses, is what it’s going to take to move the dial not just in ninth grade, but all the way from early childhood up through college completion.”

Cradle to Career may be a vast undertaking, but it is based on a successful formula. After just two summers, Ninth Grade Counts is already considered a success. “What we found from the students who participated the first summer ... is that indeed they are attending school at a higher rate and earning significantly more credits, which are good early indicators that they’re on track to graduate,” says Reese Lord, who works in the mayor’s office and helps oversee all of the Summer Youth Connect programs.

summerworks jobs youth jobs program
Photo: Worksystems, Inc.

The other main programs within Summer Youth Connect are Career + College Connections (C3) and SummerWorks, both of which are focused on providing at-risk youth with training for a range of possible post-high school pursuits. SummerWorks is run by Worksystems, Inc. (WSI), a nonprofit organization that helps coordinate workforce structures in Portland, Multnomah County and Washington County.

SummerWorks, which is targeted at students in 11th and 12th grades, offers standardized work-readiness training to youths who may have never seen the inside of an office. It helps connect the students, primarily low-income youths of color, with summer jobs with array of government and private entities.

To make sure that youths are placed in a professional setting that interests them, each one is given a skills assessment and meets individually with an adult in the program to discuss their long-term goals. “Our goal for young people is for them to go on to post-secondary education. That’s really the point of this program,” says Heather Ficht, WSI Youth Services Manager. “[We] work individually with each youth to figure out what are their skills, what are their interests, and then they cross-match with this huge list of all of the different work experience opportunities … We try to match as best we can across those skill sets.”

Ficht says that the program offers essential skills that aren’t readily available in school. “They needed a way to contextualize what they’re learning,” she says of those in the program. “They can actually generalize the skills that they’ve gained … they can talk about what they’ve learned in a different way that makes them employable.”

The effort to plug youths into the local economy is not merely a citywide endeavor. For the past few years, Shane Endicott of Our United Villages has helped run the Boise Business Youth Unity Project (BBYUP), an initiative aimed at strengthening the relationship between businesses in the Boise neighborhood and local youths.

summerworks youth jobs program
Photo: Worksystems, Inc.

Endicott says that the recent influx of new businesses in Boise seemed to alienate some of the kids who had lived in the neighborhood their entire lives. A few years ago, after a verbal tiff between some teenagers and a business owner, Endicott set about finding a way to improve connection between the two groups. “We started talking to the kids, and said, ‘Hey, what do you guys really want to be doing?’” says Endicott. “The kids said, ‘we’d like jobs.’ That seemed to be the consensus, so we said, ‘heck, maybe there’s an opportunity here.’”

With financial and capacity-building help from the Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center (POIC), BBYUP began to arrange jobs for Boise youths at local businesses. Even businesses that did not take on a new employee have contributed to a general pool of funds that allow participating businesses to make hires without suffering any financial damage. “Businesses were so open to the concept of the idea of building positive relationships with neighborhood youths,” says Endicott, “that they said they would be willing to donate to a pool even if they personally couldn’t have a youth work for them. That’s what really made it work.”

Now in it’s fourth year, BBYUP will offer seven part-time positions this summer. While small in scope, the program has shown some definite signs of success. Endicott says that one kid who worked for Mississippi Pizza Pub “ended up loving it so much, he went to culinary school, and now he’s opening a food cart on Mississippi.”

BBYUP, along with the myriad Summer Youth Connect efforts, are all in line with Mayor Adams’ goal to provide more professional experience for at-risk youths in Portland with the goal of keeping them in school. “Half of all dropouts have said in a national survey [that they] left school because they didn’t find it interesting,” Adams says. “And eighty one percent, so that’s eight out of ten, dropouts said that they would more likely stay in school if it included real world learning.

“A lot of youths would benefit from hands-on, more real world experience, more experiential learning. I think we have the opportunity to figure it out and drive down the high school dropout rate rapidly.”