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Rhode Island making progress keeping youth from falling through cracks on road to adulthood


Rhode Island making progress keeping youth from falling through cracks on road to adulthood

Jan 29, 2024 | 4:20 pm ET
By Alexander Castro
Rhode Island making progress keeping youth from falling through cracks on road to adulthood
Chronic absenteeism from school is an omen of future disconnection for some youths as they approach adulthood. Chronic absenteeism was observed in even Higher rates of missing school have been observed in Native American, low-income and Hispanic students and students with disabilities and multilingual learners. (Getty image)

Teens and young adults who aren’t working or in school have been called “disconnected youth.” Abroad, the equivalent term “NEET” means “not in education, employment or training” and sees widespread use in the United Kingdom, Japan and Canada.

But the last decade has seen a new term embraced by policy analysts in the United States: “opportunity youth.” Rather than prophesize an empty, aimless future as “disconnected” might suggest, the term sets a young person on a path full of potential.

That potential still needs to be cultivated: Lacking the foundations of a job or education in that crucial passage from adolescence to adulthood can lead to gloomy outcomes both personal and societal, according to a new report on opportunity youth from KIDS COUNT.

“The disconnection of youth ages 16 to 24 results in over $93 billion in lost earnings, tax revenues, and government spending annually and over $1.6 trillion over their lifetimes,” the report states.

But in Rhode Island, the kids are — mostly — all right. In 2021, only 8.1% of Rhode Islanders ages 16 to 24 — 11,500 young people in all — weren’t working or in school. That ranked Rhode Island fifth nationwide among states that are seizing opportunities for opportunity youth.

Narrowing the sample to youth ages 16 to 19, Rhode Island placed even higher and was first nationwide, with only 3% of this age range not working or in school.

What’s behind Rhode Island’s success in keeping the numbers of disconnected youth low compared to other states?

No single cause or specific origin emerged in the data, said Kelsey Bala, a policy analyst with KIDS COUNT.

“I don’t have any data that really points to ‘This is the strategy that kind of kept us on track,’” Bala said. “But I think just the way that Rhode Island connects…There’s a really connected array of folks and services.”

The pandemic threatened to sever many of the ties that bind, and a 2021 report from Measure of America worried that a decade of progress in youth disconnection rates — down nationally from 14.7% in 2010 to 10.7% in 2019 — would be “undone.” An uptick did indeed follow, with national estimates back up to 12.1% according to 2021 estimates also from Measure of America. This population comprises nearly 5 million young people nationally.

Not all youth are connected equally. Disparities involving race, gender or geography commonly appear in demographic studies and opportunity youth adhere to this trend. Opportunity youth are more likely to be young men, especially if Native American or Black. Youth with disabilities, multilingual learners, pregnant mothers and homeless youth are other populations with higher rates of disconnection.

From 2016 through 2020, there were also significant differences based on location: Opportunity youth comprised 9.7% of Providence County’s youth, whereas in Washington County that population was only 4.9%.  

One population stands out most, however: kids in foster care. In the class of 2022, foster kids graduated high school at a rate of 52%. That’s a massive drop from the overall statewide graduation rate of 82% and even a significant decrease from the second smallest category — homeless students, whose graduation rate was 64%. The KIDS COUNT report states that less than 1% of fostered youth go on to get a college degree. 

“If there are times where you’re moving from one foster home to the next, where you’re not socially engaged in the same groups anymore, or you have been displaced from one home to a different home, you can see how those kinds of interruptions might contribute to you not wanting to or not being able to show up fully at school,” Bala said.

There are also logistical difficulties like filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a task easier said than done for a foster kid whose address might change often. 

Chronic absenteeism from school is another omen of future disconnection and this symptom can overlap with demographic disparities. The KIDS COUNT report states that in the 2021-2022 school year, chronic absence rates were 35% for all K-12 students — a marked increase from the 2018 to 2019 school year, where only 19% of students were chronically absent. For the school year ending in 2022, chronic absenteeism was observed at even higher rates among certain groups: Native American, low-income and Hispanic students were each around 50%, while students with disabilities and multilingual learners also showed high rates — 43% and 46%, respectively.     

One distinction not made by data on opportunity youth is what kind of jobs are held by young people. Being employed doesn’t mean one is working a job that feels meaningful or is even adequately compensated. That’s why one of the report’s recommendations is to “provide equitable access to high-quality employment training opportunities.”  

“Workforce development programs that outline career pathways that prepare youth for the job market beyond immediate lower wage positions not only improve their sense of self-security, self-sufficiency, and belonging, but also contribute to the growth of our economy,” the KIDS COUNT report notes.     

Bala, whose background is in public health, noted that prevention is always a smart tactic. Starting “as far upstream as possible, talking to kids about career opportunities, allowing them to have career fairs where they explore different options” can lead to more fulfilling outcomes as working adults. 

“If you don’t hear about something early on, it’s harder for you to picture yourself doing it,” Bala said. 

Bala agreed that vocational programming like CTE (Career and Technical Education) can accommodate the fact that “not everyone learns the same way.”

According to data from the Rhode Island Department of Education, 2023 saw 92% of the state’s CTE students graduate — the highest graduation rate in the state, Bala noted.

“If a trade is more interesting to you, and you don’t know about it yet — trade exploration, apprenticeship programs, anything expanding workspace early learning opportunities —  can help more youth transition successfully into college and career,” Bala said.